County panel studies trash alternatives Co-composting facility and transfer station are likeliest options

Environment vs. price tag

Risks and costs come with each proposal

Yates wants to wait

April 06, 1997|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,SUN STAFF

The County Commissioners will talk one more time next week about solving the county's growing garbage problem -- something Carroll officials have been unable to fix in more than a decade of study and discussion.

They appear no closer to resolving the problem than their predecessors were in 1984, when the county considered the possibility of building a trash incinerator.

The longer they wait, the more complicated and difficult trash removal becomes -- and the more expensive it gets, politically and monetarily.

For years, the simplest method of trash removal in the United States was to dig a hole and bury it -- as Carroll County has done. But in the past 20 years, using landfills has become an inordinately expensive environmental liability.

Even with modern landfills equipped with elaborate plastic liners, pollutants, contaminants and hazardous materials often leak into the soil and surrounding ground water.

Carroll, which uses landfills exclusively, has about 10 years before reaching capacity at the Northern Landfill in Westminster. It could extend that period 10 years by opening another section of Hoods Mill Landfill in South Carroll. But the County Commissioners are loath to approve such a move.

"We're done land-filling," said Commissioner Donald I. Dell. "Those liners aren't forever. One day they're going to rupture. I'd like to set aside a fund to mine our landfills and get it all out."

With landfills no longer an option, the county must begin anew a search for alternatives. The two most likely options: building a garbage transfer station to collect trash and truck it out of the county or building a $33 million plant that turns sludge and garbage into potting soil.

On April 16, two nationally operating trash disposal companies -- Bedminster Bioconversions Corp. of Cherry Hill, N.J., and Waste Management Inc. of Oak Brook, Ill. -- will present proposals for solving Carroll's trash problems.

Until August, Bedminster seemed to have the inside track, with a so-called co-composting process that turns sludge and trash into potting soil in three days.

The co-composting process is supposed to be free of the smell associated with some open-air composting plants because co-composting occurs indoors. But shortly after Bedminster opened a state-of-the-art plant near Atlanta in June, neighbors complained that the odor was so strong it permeated their clothing.

Plant burned

The complaints were only the beginning. On Aug. 26, half of the 5-acre Georgia plant was destroyed by fire. Fire officials theorized that lightning might have ignited a methane gas buildup inside the plant.

Four months later, Cobb County commissioners approved a $7.39 million reconstruction of the plant, but another fire occurred Christmas Eve. Last month, the plant's insurance company withdrew its coverage.

The problems have caused Dell to question Bedminster's project. "The technology is there to make it work, but something went wrong," Dell said.

Dell, a farmer, is also concerned that the potting soil produced in the co-composting process may contain metals or chemicals that could later be found unacceptable if used for crops.

"Years ago, we spread things on the soil that today would be outlawed because of the technological ability to measure them better," Dell said.

He said he thinks that the county might ultimately choose a co-composting system to get rid of its trash, but that the county "should wait five to seven years till Bedminster proves itself."

Meanwhile, Dell wants to negotiate an agreement with Waste Management to take the county's trash elsewhere and burn it.

Landfill liability

Burying the trash in a supersize landfill in Virginia or Pennsylvania is not a good solution, Dell said, because the county is liable for its trash that is exported and would have to help pay for cleanup, should the landfill pollute the environment.

Like Dell, Commissioner Richard T. Yates sees co-composting as a future consideration, and transporting the county's trash to an incinerator or landfill elsewhere as an interim solution -- but for different reasons.

"I like composting, but I'm not sure I want to bite the bullet on a $30 million project when elements within the county want to change the form of government," Yates said, referring to movements to increase the number of commissioners to five or to change to a charter form of government.

"I think we should delay a decision [on co-composting] until we know which form of government we're going to have, and let them decide," Yates said.

Waste Management's proposal calls for the company to build a $1 million, 30,000-square-foot transfer station from which garbage would be collected and shipped.

The trash export alternative is not without its problems and costs.

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