Danger below

November 23, 2007

Once again, the time-honored practice of burying waste material in the ground in hopes that it will be gone for good has proved shortsighted.

Landfill sites around Maryland turn out to be contaminated with coal ash, a waste product from coal-fired power plants that could be poisoning surface and drinking water with cancer-causing agents.

State regulators are finally drafting regulations for new dump sites governing the use of liners and other devices to prevent the acid waste and toxic metals from leaching into the ground. These regulations must be as tough as possible.

The state must also conduct an exhaustive review of ash sites that have been in operation for decades to clean up damage and impose the new standards.

It's very troubling that the danger of the coal ash, sometimes called fly ash, failed to come to light until the drinking wells of 23 homes in Gambrills were found last year to be contaminated by the stuff and Anne Arundel County officials raised a ruckus.

Since then, The Sun's Tom Pelton has reported on potentially leaky ash dump sites on the Wicomico River and in other parts of the state. The threat is literally announcing itself from the ground up.

Power companies are likely to complain about the extra cost imposed by tighter regulations. But the alternative to cleanup is more expensive. Constellation Energy and Gambrills dump operator BBSS Inc. have already been fined $1 million for allowing contaminants to seep into the Gambrills wells.

Marylanders simply can't be sure their water is safe without rigorous government protection.

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