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Landfill toxins seep into bedrock County seen as slow to test all wells


Like many of his Marriottsville neighbors, Arthur Grace's emotions ran the gamut -- concern, anger and even joy -- when he heard that toxic solvents had seeped into bedrock below the county's 12-year-old landfill and that a landfill expansion study had been scrapped.

One reaction escaped him, however.

"I'm personally not surprised at all that they've discovered this problem. It was only a matter of time," said the Sand Hill Road resident. "We've been trying to tell them this all along. I don't know why they're so surprised."

Mr. Grace, his wife, Christine, and two children have only a stand of trees and a small field between their house and the clay-lined Alpha Ridge landfill cell. Somewhere between the cell and those trees is a county monitoring well that in September revealed water contaminated with about six toxic chemicals.

Such substances are not new to the monitoring wells that ring the 590-acre dump. The wells turned up toxins nearly three years ago.

But the recent samples came from 75 feet below the surface in bedrock. County officials had assured residents the layer of rock would be a barrier between the landfill and their drinking water.

"They always said it was never going to get down to the bedrock, but then the Titanic was never going to sink, either," said Mr. Grace, whose family started drinking bottled water last week.

Tests of well water from about 45 homes in April and in October turned up no contaminants. The county health department will probably do another sample in two months, said Bertram F. Nixon, director of the department's Technical Services Program.

But residents who want all wells in the area tested say the county is dragging its feet.

L. Scott Muller, a local activist who fought the proposed landfill expansion, says such individual tests were promised when the landfill site was selected in the late 1970s.

Mr. Grace said his family won't wait for the county to act.

"We're getting another full-blown, independent test, not done by the county," he said. "Then we're going to get a water treatment system."

Independent tests will cost residents $250 to $500, but the county health department could do the tests cheaper in bulk, Mr. Muller said.

The health department's Mr. Nixon would not say whether the county will agree to test all wells in the area. Each test costs a state laboratory in Baltimore about $175 per sample, but the county has not been asked to to absorb those costs.

Mr. Muller and another landfill activist, biochemist Donald L. Gill, argue that sampling residential wells isn't enough because not all wells draw water from the same aquifer source. For instance, one of Mr. Grace's neighbors complained of a nitrate problem in his water, probably caused by fertilizer runoff, while water from Mr. Grace's well less than 300 yards away, has no such problem.

"Little is known about these aquifers and where they come from," said J. Gordon Warfield, who also lives on Sand Hill Road within sight landfill.

Mr. Warfield scoffs at the idea that bedrock could have been a barrier for toxic leachate from the landfill, or "dump," as he prefers to call it.

"That's not solid rock down there -- it's in layers. How does our rainfall get into the aquifers, if it's not through penetration," said Mr. Warfield, who had his well tested three or four years ago. "I guess we'd better do it again."

Mr. Warfield was a member of the Planning Board that set criteria for the landfill, and said he did not oppose it at the time. "I felt that we were going to have adequate protection from the county government," he said.

If tests show that private wells have become contaminated, Mr. Grace said, the county should bring in public water, just as it plans to do for residents near a closed landfill on New Cut Road in Ellicott City.

"They're going to have to do something to ensure that people's property values aren't destroyed by pollution," he said.

Last spring, the county tested Mr. Grace's well, but only after his wife threatened to call County Executive Charles I. Ecker.

What the county was discontinuing, Mr. Nixon said, were tests for more typical well problems, such as acidity and bacteria from septic systems. Instead, the department began testing for volatile organic compounds (VOCs), such as the dry cleaning fluids and paint-stripping compounds that had turned up in bedrock test wells in levels as much as 80 times higher than federal

drinking water standards.

Concerns about the landfill have a familiar ring for Florence Cavey, who has lived for more than a quarter-century between Mount View and Sand Hill roads. Twenty years ago tomorrow, more than 200 people crowded the County Council chambers, protesting several possible landfill sites, one of them at Interstate 70N, now I-70, and Sand Hill Road. Back then, Mrs. Cavey tried looking at the big picture.

"The landfill's got to go somewhere. No matter where you pick, nobody's going to want that landfill," she explained recently.

And while Mrs. Cavey has had an expensive filtration system installed to soften and remove acid from her drinking water, she wasn't particularly concerned about the landfill.

"The main thing I was worried about was the stains in the bathtub, and the way the water tasted."

Still, she wonders what might happen to her water, and thinks she knows where the county went wrong in its solid waste policy.

"Instead of spreading it around, they like put it all in one big lump, and then they have a problem because it's all in one big lump."

Pollution is easier to handle if it is spread around, Mrs. Cavey argued, recommending that the county incinerate, recycle and landfill its trash. "With those three ways, Mother Nature should be able to take care of it," she said.

County Councilman Charles C. Feaga, who represents Marriottsville, has scheduled a meeting at 7 p.m. March 2 in the George Howard county office building in Ellicott City. Residents will be able to question representatives of the county Public Works Department, which runs the landfill, and the Health Department, which conducts residential well tests.


1973: More than 200 people pack a County Council hearing to oppose proposed landfill sites at Triadelphia Road and Route 144, Interstate 70N and Sand Hill Road and Henryton Road at Route 99.

1976: A possible 600-acre landfill site at Burleigh Manor is opposed. Four community members quit the committee studying the site, saying the government denied them "meaningful participation" in the analysis. Rep. Goodloe E. Byron opposes the Burleigh Manor site.

January 1977: The council hears intense opposition to the Burleigh Manor, Clarksville, Guilford and Ellicott City sites. Six people testify against two Marriottsville sites.

February 1977: The council recommends the Marriottsville site to County Executive Edward L. Cochran, who already favors the site. Howard County Citizens for Conservation files a lawsuit, charging that the council should have held an additional public hearing on the Marriottsville site after deleting five other sites from consideration. More than 3,000 people sign a petition against the Marriottsville site.

May 1978: Circuit Judge James Mcgill decides the suit in favor of the county, but says council hearings lacked adequate notice.

May 1979: The state health department approves the 590-acre landfill's permit.

May 1980: Alpha Ridge Landfill opens, allowing closure of the 40-year-old New Cut Road landfill in Ellicott City. Residents persuade the state to prevent the county from opening Alpha Ridge on Sundays.

1987: The State Department of the Environment allows the county to increase the depth of the landfill to within five feet of the water table.

Mid-1990: Toxic solvents are found in shallow monitoring wells on the landfill site.

February 1992: County Executive Charles I. Ecker's capital budget proposals include a study on a landfill expansion. The study draws opposition from Marriottsville residents.

May 1992: The council approves the study with the condition that it not be done until the Solid Waste Advisory Committee submits recommendations on 10-year solid waste management plan.

September 1992: Test results from a deep well next to the clay-lined landfill cell show that toxic solvents have seeped into bedrock below the landfill, casting doubt upon county officials' belief that bedrock would be a barrier to ground water contamination.

February 1992: The advisory committee submits its report. News of bedrock contamination surfaces. Public Works Director James Irvin announces the scrapping of the expansion study.

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