Landfill pollution allegedly discounted County accused of misleading citizens


A landfill activist has charged that Howard County officials ar misleading residents about the seriousness of pollution at the Alpha Ridge Landfill in Marriottsville.

"They're just absolutely jerking people around," said Donald L. Gill, a University of Maryland Medical School biochemistry professor who lives near the landfill. "What they're trying to do, I guess, is look after their jobs."

In a letter dated Wednesday to County Executive Charles I. Ecker, Dr. Gill charged that county tests in monitoring wells around the landfill since September prove "the situation has significantly deteriorated"

Despite what he called confirmation of fears that drinking water might soon be contaminated, Dr. Gill said, the county's new landfill newsletter has not informed residents.

He criticized the newsletter for citing the possibility that "landfill contaminants" could be responsible for acetone -- a chemical that can cause bronchial irritation and may depress the central ,, nervous system -- showing up in samples from shallow monitoring wells north and southeast of the landfill.

County Executive Charles I. Ecker defended the Public Works Department's handling of the landfill situation.

"We are aware of the results. We are going to send them out in the next newsletter," he said Friday. "We thought there was nothing that warranted getting them out right away."

He also noted that tests of residential well water, which have turned up no contaminants, were being stepped up.

He said the county is continuing to sample monitoring wells. The county is also putting in new wells in conjunction with a county consultant's study that began in November and is to be completed by fall.

Information about "laboratory contaminants" came from an independent laboratory, not from administration officials, Mr. Ecker said.

"We're certainly not trying to make light of anything," he added.

"I don't agree with the substance of what he's saying," Public Works Director James M. Irvin said Friday of Dr. Gill's recent letter.

Dr. Gill cited test results of samples taken in October and February from the deep well, and earlier tests from shallow wells, as proof that the threat to local drinking water is as serious as he had warned it was.

"The single new deep well continues to yield the highest levels of certain of the most toxic contaminants, confirming the seriousness of the problem," Dr. Gill wrote. "Even some of the shallow wells, wells furthest from the landfill including, for the first time, wells on the opposite (north) side of the Little Patuxent River are showing high levels of a much higher spectrum of toxic organics." The letter was attached to sets of results of county tests, including a comparison of deep well tests dated Sept. 9, Oct. 30 and Feb. 25.

The results produced different patterns for each of the solvents, known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Methylene chloride, a chemical used for stripping paint, went from 310 to 430 to 330 parts per billion for the three tests. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lists the chemical as a "probable human carcinogen," and considers 5 parts per billion safe for drinking water.

Tetrachloroethene, a common dry cleaning chemical, showed up levels of 200, 160 and 170 parts per billion in the tests. The EPA set the same limit, 5 parts per billion, on that chemical.

Toxic solvents used for such things as degreasing parts or drycleaning were discovered in shallow test wells at the landfill's northwest corner in 1990. Residents were told by county officials that they did not believe the toxins, some of which are suspected carcinogens, would penetrate the bedrock beneath the landfill, which is the source of residential well water.

But in September, a monitoring well drilled into bedrock produced solvent-contaminated water samples. The information was not made public until February, after Dr. Gill obtained the results from public works officials and sounded alarms among County Council members, Mr. Ecker and the news media.

At the time, Mr. Irvin cited a need to analyze the results professionally before determining how bad the problem was and publicizing it.

After public outcry over the test results, however, the county executive's office has started the monthly newsletter for landfill neighbors.

The first issue of the newsletter, received by residents recently, included a map showing test well sites and promised test results in subsequent issues.

L On other concerns Dr. Gill raised, Mr. Ecker was optimistic.

"We are investigating the possibility of extending public water out to the area," he said. "Not to increase the (residential) density, but to service the area at the current density."

Some area residents have had reservations about getting public water service to the area, fearing that it would bring with it rezoning and intense residential development.

The old landfill cell, which both sides acknowledge is the likely source of the toxic chemicals, is lined with clay and was closed to dumping Feb. 28.

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