County officials and their Baltimore-area counterparts are looking at ways to collaborate on the disposal, burning and marketing of trash, an idea that stalled last year when Howard and three other counties made a similar effort.
"What's different about this is we're having somebody from each county participate in developing this plan," said County Executive Charles I. Ecker. "I think one of the assumptions is that everybody's going to have to share in solving this problem."
Like many jurisdictions, Howard County is facing skyrocketing costs for disposing of or recycling its trash. This year's solid-waste budget is $6.5 million, and it is expected to be 2 1/2 times that by 2000.
Most of the county's trash goes to the Alpha Ridge Landfill in Marriottsville, which is expected to be full by 2008.
Mr. Ecker and leaders of other communities asked for a study of the idea this summer in a meeting of the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, formerly the Baltimore Regional Council of Governments, said Michael Gagliardo, executive director of the waste authority.
The study by the Northeast Maryland Waste Disposal Authority for Baltimore and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties began last month.
It seeks regional possibilities such as landfills, incinerators, compost facilities or plants to sort recyclables, said John O'Hara, chief of Howard County's environmental services bureau.
"At this stage, what's been done is very preliminary. There have been no commitments to build anything or to take any steps toward regionalization," Mr. O'Hara said.
A similar effort by Howard, Carroll, Frederick and Washington counties dissolved in March 1991, when Frederick and Carroll dropped out.
That study, also done through the Northeast Maryland Waste Disposal Authority, indicated that the best alternatives for the four counties would be combinations of one or more trash-burning power plants and a regional landfill in Frederick or Carroll county.
This time, there is an understanding among the Baltimore-area jurisdictions that "we're each going to have to share in that pain of solving this problem," Mr. Ecker said.
One possibility that could surface on the shopping list is a trash-burning plant to power the National Security Agency. The federal agency has commissioned its own study of the feasibility of a plant at Fort Meade, just across the county line in Anne Arundel County, Mr. O'Hara said.
He said an NSA plant was but "one of many potential facilities that are out there," most of which are not limited to one particular site.
The counties also are considering new initiatives and policies to help sort out the region's trash, Mr. O'Hara said. They could market the recyclable materials and encourage users of such materials to locate in the area.
"This would be like the first cut at trying to identify potential regional projects. If it was determined that any of them were worth pursuing, we would have to do a much more comprehensive analysis," Mr. O'Hara said.
The public works directors involved with the study will probably report its findings next month, Mr. O'Hara said.
News of the study came as a surprise to members of Howard County's Solid Waste Advisory Committee, which has been working on a solid-waste master plan for the county since last November, said Miriam Mahowald, chairwoman of the committee.
"I felt it was kind of late coming to us, because we're not working with the regional people and yet we're being asked to formulate a 20-year plan," she said. "It makes it very difficult for an advisory group to not know what it's being asked to do."
But Mr. O'Hara said the regional effort would be of little use to the committee at this point.
"It's a very preliminary look. We're not developing a final plan or recommending facilities," he said. "It's just to identify what opportunities are out there."