Landfill bill would benefit only its patron, a recycler


Because of a production error, an article in The Sun yesterday omitted information about two Maryland firms that grind refuse into a mulch that can cover landfills. Recycled cover made by Joseph Smith & Sons Inc. of Brandywine is being used in a pilot program in Prince George's and Charles counties. Conservit of Hagerstown also takes part in the pilot, which is supervised by the state Department of the Environment. Maryland allows use of the mulch only in the pilot program.

The Sun regrets the error.

It's officially called House Bill 1317: Landfill Systems, Recycled Material, Daily Cover.

But an unofficial title could be: Hey! Let's get together and try to help the recycling business of Joseph Smith & Sons Inc. of Prince George's County.

The measure would require landfills to use recycled material for daily "cover," a coating spread over trash to prevent odors, blowing debris and fires.

And guess what? The Brandywine company is one of only two in the state that grind refuse -- from plaster and plastics to tires and wood -- into a mulch that can replace soil, the current cover of choice at Maryland landfills.

Under the legislation, the state's 34 sanitary landfills would be required to use recycled cover if it costs the same or less than dirt. Three of the landfills are privately owned and the rest are run by counties.

Company officials got Prince George's lawmakers to introduce the measure and then hired two of the most high-powered lobbyists in Annapolis to push the bill through the General Assembly.

The bill has all the markings of what is known in Annapolis as a "red-headed Eskimo," a bill so narrowly drawn it affects only one individual or a small group.

Environmental officials say there are, in fact, some benefits to using recycled cover.

But the measure promoting it, as now written, would exempt the refuse used to make the cover from state laws and regulations governing transportation, handling and processing. That provision -- an open attempt to make production of the mulch more profitable -- has left state and county officials worried that it could include contaminants.

Experts also say there are other environmentally beneficial ways to cover landfills than using the product made by Smith & Sons, which is owned by Michael I. Price.

"It's an attempt to legislate a market for a product he makes," said Kristen Mark Hughes, associate director of the Maryland Association of Counties. The association opposes the measure, arguing it would interfere with the local management of landfills.

Mr. Hughes told the Environmental Matters Committee last week that other experimental covers, such as vinyl and spray-on lids, provide "significantly greater benefits" in certain circumstances. Landfills should have a choice of what type of cover to use, he said.

But Del. James W. Hubbard, D-Prince George's, who acknowledges that he introduced the bill at the behest of Smith & Sons officials, said he believes that the bill "makes a lot of sense."

The freshman lawmaker said the bill is beneficial from an "environmental standpoint" because it would prevent landfills from digging up soil for cover. And he said the recycled cover could be used as credit toward the state goals that landfills must meet for recycled trash.

During last week's hearing on the bill, Mr. Hubbard passed around small plastic bags filled with the recycled material and noted that "certain innovative companies" are producing it. But in an interview later, he said the only company he knew of was Smith & Sons. State officials say there is just one other, Conservit of Hagerstown.

The recycled cover by Smith & Sons is currently being used in a state pilot program in Prince George's and Charles counties. The state currently does not allow the mulch's use except in the pilot program.

Conservit also is taking part in the pilot, producing cover for a Howard County landfill. Sidney Metzner, chief executive officer of Conservit, heard about the proposed legislation through a trade group and said it sounded like a good idea.

But state environmental officials have problems with the measure. "We do not support anything that goes unregulated," stressed Deputy Secretary of the Environment Ronald Nelson, saying that the department would push for strict controls through amendments.

Mr. Hubbard explained that such regulations "add to the cost of doing business." But lobbyist Bruce Bereano, who is working on the bill, brushed aside the environmental exemptions, saying they were part of a "draft" and would be removed.

Mr. Bereano said the bill would be amended so the state would continue to provide strict controls of the recycled cover. And he said that it would be further amended to simply make its use an option for landfills, rather than a requirement. The bill "is going to be changed dramatically," said Gerald Evans, the other noted lobbyist pushing the measure.

Deputy Secretary Nelson said his agency supports the concept of using alternative covers rather than "exhausting some pristine areas" for soil cover. But while the department supports efforts to have landfills consider recycled cover, it does not favor making its use a requirement.

Next week, the Senate Economic and Environmental Matter Committee will discuss the Senate version of the bill, which was by Sen. Arthur Dorman, another Prince George's Democrat.

Mr. Price, the president of Smith & Sons, declined to say what the bill would mean to profits. He referred all questions to Mr. Bereano, who said the bill would help eliminate rubble fills, the 17 dumps around the state that now take the construction materials and waste that provide the grist for recycled cover.

The cost of soil cover at landfills varies wildly, said John Goheen, a spokesman for the Department of the Environment. Some landfills have dirt on site and pay nothing, while others pay from $6 to $10 per cubic yard to have it trucked in.

"My client's product is cheaper than dirt," declared Mr. Bereano.

Currently neither the Smith company nor Conservit are selling the recycled cover. Instead, they provide it free to those counties in the pilot program, saving money by not having to send their refuse to rubble fills, which charge about $30 per ton.

"Maybe someday," said Mr. Metzner of Conservit, "we'll be selling it."

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