A heap of lessons at recycled dump

Landfills: Twenty people learn about their operation and how to decrease trash on a hike of an old one near Westminster.

November 01, 1999|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

The plateau just north of Westminster seems like the kind of site a real estate broker would die for -- panoramic views of surrounding trees and valleys, a stream nearby and a single country lane of traffic.

If it weren't for the smell of that darned gas.

The hill, a few hundred yards southwest of Hashawha Environmental Center, is the peak of an 88-acre mountain of garbage formed when Carroll County closed one of its landfills and sodded it over with grass.

Last week, a group of children and parents hiked up the hill to get a close look at John Owings Landfill in the first public tour of the site since it closed in 1988.

Tina Shupp, a tour guide and recreation specialist, said she decided to hold a walk around the landfill because the hill is next to the center's trails and wetlands and she is frequently questioned about it.

"People ask: `What is that hill there? Why doesn't it have any trees on it?' " she said.

The site, outside the 320-acre Hashawha complex, is usually off-limits to the public. But Shupp said she won permission from the county for the hike last week because she wanted to increase public awareness of how landfills operate.

"There's usually a lot of controversy associated with landfills, and I just thought it might be good to educate people about landfills," she said.

She said she was surprised that 20 parents and children signed up for the tour.

"I didn't know what to expect," said Chris Bitzel as he negotiated a rocky hill with his 2-year-old son, Jack, perched on his shoulders.

Bitzel and others saw the results of the landfill closure process, a "capping" operation in which plastic liners are installed over the trash in layers, with topsoil and grass over them.

The landfill has turned into a mountain of grass dotted with pipes to vent methane gas generated by decomposing waste. The mountain also provides a scenic view of the surrounding valley.

"You are now standing on 88 acres of garbage," Shupp told the group as it reached the summit.

The hikers smelled the methane and heard a brief lecture by Shupp on the science of landfills and the huge amounts of trash that the nation generates.

"Each person generates 4 to 6 pounds of trash a day, and that includes you guys," Shupp said, looking straight at youngsters for emphasis.

Some parents brought daughters in Girl Scout troops, who were eager to earn ecology badges for their efforts.

Call for a park

"I think it's a waste not to use all this space somehow," said Laurie Karll, who bought her 10-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, and five other Girl Scouts from Lineboro.

Karll said she and her husband remembered the landfill being used as a dump for household items before they moved to Seattle for six years in 1988.

She believes that the Seattle area is more progressive about recycling, having set more ambitious goals for its recycling efforts and using at least one closed landfill as a public park.

"They're way ahead of us out there," Karll said.

Carroll County officials say using the John Owings site as a park could damage an environmentally sensitive area by eroding the soil and exposing waste stored there.

Gary L. Horst, Carroll County's deputy director of public works, said the landfill was one of about 30 that have operated in Carroll County.

It was privately owned until 1972, when the county took it over.

The county operated it until 1988, when federal and state regulations on landfills were tightened, Horst said.

"It was a typical dump of that era. It took all kinds of household waste. Trash, old newspapers, dishwashers. It took all of the kinds of things you throw away at your house," Horst said.

Forgotten area

Horst said the landfill was closed as part of a county and state effort to clean up the area.

Since then, he said, many people have forgotten about it or do not seem to realize that a landfill was near the environmental center.

County trash is sent to a York, Pa., facility or Northern Landfill, a 220-acre site along Route 140 a few miles east of Westminster.

"Landfills are like behind-the-scenes kind of things," he said. "People don't even want to think about them."

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