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News Maryland Howard County

Residents worried about safety of landfill gas energy project

Howard County officials say they will likely spend up to $50,000 on emissions testing for a new generator that will produce energy from methane gas given off by Alpha Ridge Landfill, after neighbors raised concerns over how the project might affect air quality.

The decision last week came after an informational meeting held in Marriottsville by the department of public works, which is overseeing the proposed combustion engine.

"If they can't prove to me it's safe, then don't tell me it's safe," said one resident, Geff Ottman, during Monday's meeting at Marriotts Ridge High School.

Ottman said he and other residents are concerned about the long-term safety and health of the community, which the county connected to public water in the late 1990s after the groundwater supply was polluted by the landfill.

"We believe it's a good project," said Evelyn Tomlin, chief of the county's bureau of environmental services, following the meeting. But she added, "We're listening to their concerns." She said the county plans additional emissions testing after hearing from residents at the meeting.

The county still expects to begin operating the system this summer. Energy will be captured from the existing landfill flare system that was installed in 1999 to contain odors and prevent methane from escaping. County officials said the electricity from the project will be used to power the new generator, the existing gas collection and flare system, as well as a new vehicle charging station, while the rest will be sold, offsetting some of the landfill's costs.

The county did not plan for long-term testing of the emissions from the generator because Environmental Protection Agency standards and the scientist hired by the county said the chemical emissions released by the generator are not considered to be harmful.

"The impacts are really not going to hurt anybody," said Laura C. Green, a senior scientist and president of Cambridge Environmental Inc., who was hired by the county to study the project.

She said the kinds of chemical emissions and the amounts released from the landfill are considered to be unchanging because that landfill cell is no longer taking in waste. Compared with figures from other landfills, potentially dangerous chemicals emitted from Howard's landfill are much lower than EPA standards and would not increase with a generator.

Such systems can cause mercury emissions, but officials say they are much less than mercury emissions from home oil-fired boilers.

Despite Green's assurances, several residents wanted to know why the county did not opt for continuous testing.

Niti B. Blackwell, an environmental engineer for the Howard Bureau of Environmental Services, said the county looked for a continuous emissions monitoring system to evaluate any change. She said the county reached out to consultants and other municipalities with similar systems, but found that such a system for a small, gas-fired project is not available.

Tomlin said the county will likely complete a handful of one-time tests.

The county originally did not plan to do additional tests because they weren't necessary and the added costs.

"At a certain point, we are redundantly testing," said Joshua D. Feldmark, director of the county's office of Environmental Sustainability.

While some residents appeared satisfied with the additional testing, many were still concerned about what effect the generator might have on their health and their home values. Some wondered why they were not consulted earlier in the process.

One resident asked during the meeting, "Is it a done deal?"

Geff Ottman's wife, Ann Marie, said, "We had to really push for this one," referring to the second community meeting. She said an earlier session in the fall had few in attendance because most residents were unaware of the project.

"We just found out this was going on," said Melissa Anderson, who moved to the area a year earlier. As a managing principal at Associates Energy & Environmental management Consultants, she said she would never have bought her house knowing about the plans for the generator after the meeting.

She asked Green, "Would you move here knowing this?"

Green replied, "Yes."

Nick Smith, who lives less than a mile from the landfill, said he thought the county did a poor job communicating with residents about the project. He raised concerns over safety controls if the system were to fail and cause an explosion.

According to a document on the county's website, the system has alarm conditions and automatic shutoffs in case of emergency.

Feldmark said that the county is always looking for better ways to communicate but added that officials did take steps to inform residents by posting information on the website and ads in the newspaper.

The next step is to "regroup" and "put together a proposal," after hearing residents' concerns.

The generator, which will be housed in a structure about the size of a tractor-trailer container, is expected to cost just under $3.9 million, with an estimated 10- to 15-year payback period, depending on the energy market.

The project is in the design stage and awaiting permits from the Maryland Department of the Environment, a county spokesman said.

jkanderson@baltsun.com

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