PRINCESS ANNE -- What does a plan to dump trash have to do with relocating a Maryland county's highest geographical point above sea level?
In Somerset County, everything.
Somerset officials, who are under pressure to solve their solid waste disposal problems, are pondering a proposal that could save the county millions of dollars in landfill costs.
But it also means that by Eastern Shore standards, a virtual mountain of trash would end up on what is now flat farmland.
It is a question that has pitted farmer against businessman, native against newcomer and rich against poor since it was first unveiled in January.
County officials are expected to make a decision on how to handle their future trash needs in early June. Meantime, the debate over what kind of landfill Somerset will have continues.
Simply put, the county can choose to close its current landfill -- which is nearly packed to capacity -- and open a new one on adjacent property the county already owns.
Or the government can turn over its garbage woes to Somerset Environmental Authority Inc., a newly formed private company that hopes to reap huge profits by storing what other people throw away.
The first option increases the likelihood that Somerset County, cash-strapped and plagued with double-digit unemployment rates, would have to raise taxes just to pay for the expensive landfill closing and future trash collection services, county officials acknowledge.
Under the second alternative, SEA would close the county's existing landfill -- a project that could cost $2 million -- and open a modern trash site, all with the company's money.
Additionally, the company would take care of Somerset's residential trash disposal needs for free and pay the county $300,000 annually for 20 years.
But there's a catch.
Somerset, which currently sends 75 tons of its residential and commercial trash five days a week to what is called the Fairmount Road landfill, could see an additional 900 tons of trash trucked into the county each day from neighborhoods and cities hundreds of miles away.
SEA's profits would come from charging jurisdictions outside Somerset County that are willing to pay tipping fees to have their garbage accumulate in somebody else's backyard.
Moving a mountain
For the company to make money, a virtual mountain of trash would have to be hauled into the county. Even by company estimates, within 20 years, the proposed landfill would rise some 80 feet above sea level, nearly twice as tall as the highest existing point of land now in Somerset County near the Worcester County line.
The county opened its existing landfill, located off Route 361 near Westover, in 1973.
Local officials were considering opening a new 20-year landfill on 30 acres of land next to the current facility. At the same time, individuals who would later form SEA were looking for some place to anchor a private landfill business.
Not since former Gov. Harry Hughes successfully lobbied to build a new state prison near Princess Anne has an issue piqued so much emotion in Somerset, according to County Administrator Charles Massey.
"I don't know if we need everybody in the world's garbage coming here," said Grant "Hon" Lawson, a retired waterman who runs an art gallery in Crisfield. "Also, I don't know if Somerset County can afford a new dump site."
Aside from the aesthetic dilemma posed by what opponents call "the mega-dump," concerns range from the potential effects that that much trash would have on air and water quality.
Like other Shore counties, Somerset's water table is high. Locals joke that to dig a well, dirt has to be imported.
Critics say the risks of a leaky landfill polluting the aquifers used for drinking water are too great.
And there's the question about SEA, which as a company has never built or operated a landfill.
Former state transportation chief Richard H. Trainor serves as president, with Baltimore businessman Don Sanchez as treasurer-secretary.
Although other partners have run landfills in Baltimore County, New Jersey and Virginia, opponents of the proposal are skeptical about the firm's ability to keep its promises to maintain a safe and profitable operation.
"In essence, we're being asked to buy a car with all our money, and we don't know anything about who makes it," said Dana Simson, one of the most vocal landfill opponents.
But the partners insist their landfill will be better than any ever envisioned by county officials.
As proposed, the landfill will contain two heavy plastic liners and drainage systems, the lowest laid 3 feet above the water table. A double network of perforated drainage pipes and several feet of sand, gravel and clay will lie beneath the trash. Liquid will be pumped from the landfill and taken to a water treatment plant.
Appealing to local fears
In the battle to win support, both sides have appealed to local fears.
Somerset Environmental Trust, a group opposing the company's plan, argues that toxic waste from as far away as New Jersey will end up in the proposed landfill, polluting drinking water and making the area unsafe for humans and wildlife. Some opponents even say the weight of the trash would cause the land around and under it to sink to prehistoric levels.
The company, on the other hand, warns that if Somerset County rejects its offer, the financial burden on local residents to maintain their own landfill could raise taxes or, worse yet, cut into essential services.
"If they need a new bulldozer [for the landfill], they'll have to get rid of three teachers," Mr. Trainor said.
Company officials said they do not plan to haul New Jersey trash into Somerset and will accept only waste compatible with the trash collected locally.
At this time, the company is looking no farther than Delaware, Maryland's western shore and Ocean City for trash contracts, Mr. Trainor said.
While SET has relied upon a grass-roots effort to defeat the proposal, the company has used professionally prepared reports and graphics to distribute to area residents.
On one occasion, it offered free helicopter rides for those who wanted to see the condition of the current landfill and the company's site next door.
With one of the county's five commissioners sidelined by a conflict of interest, the landfill's opponents need only two votes to block it.
"I think we have a good chance of the commission voting it down," said Ms. Simson. "We just have to continue to apply pressure."