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Gill's Strong Words Needed On Landfill


Donald L. Gill blows whistles.

He blows big, loud, unruly whistles especially on the subject of Howard County's Alpha Ridge Landfill.

Thank goodness he does.

Most recently, Mr. Gill, a University of Maryland Medical School biochemistry professor, had his ire stirred by what he believes are attempts by county government officials to minimize the contamination occurring at the landfill in Marriottsville.

He feels that a recent county newsletter distributed to neighbors of the landfill attempts to obscure the issue by claiming that some of the contaminants discovered were simply residue from a cleaning solution used on equipment that draws samples from wells surrounding the landfill.

Mr. Gill notes correctly that samples from wells continue to show high levels of contaminants. Other chemicals, not just those left from cleaning solutions, have been found to be active around the landfill, and threaten residential wells as well, he said.

So far, no contaminants have been found in residential wells, but the county is continuing to conduct studies. No one should be led to believe that the problem has been contained or that future tests will not show significant and spreading contamination.

"They're just absolutely jerking people around," Mr. Gill said, referring to the county's newsletter. "What they're trying to do, I guess, is look after their jobs."

Those are strong words. And they are absolutely necessary to prod county officials into dealing more effectively with the crisis surrounding its landfill.

At the root of the disagreement between Mr. Gill and the county are their diametrically opposed views on solutions to the problem.

Mr. Gill wants the county to close the landfill and transport refuse to other areas. The county, so far, has decided to delay a closing until local jurisdictions can come up with a regional solution for handling solid waste.

With no regional solution close at hand, however, the county would have to continue operating a new cell at Alpha Ridge, which officials insist will not leak contaminants as the older cell has.

Either solution poses significant problems.

The obvious down side to the administration's approach is that it leaves further contamination to chance. While scientific evidence suggests that the new cell will not leak, similar assurances were given years ago about the older cell now in question.

Yet Mr. Gill's approach has its pitfalls, too. It would probably require that the county lock into a long-term contract to have its waste trucked out of state, and such a pact would prohibit the county from playing a role in a regional solution, and one should be developed.

To the county administration's credit, officials say they will include more detailed data on contamination in another newsletter expected to be issued later this month.

"We recognize there is a problem," said James M. Irvin, head of the county's Public Works Department. "We're trying to be as straightforward with the public as possible in trying to disseminate the results."

Mr. Irvin said the fact that new data were not included in last month's newsletter was an "editorial decision." He said it was decided that officials would have more room to explain the new data if they held off for a month.

Fair enough. Now, the administration needs to prove to residents that it can be trusted to be forthright when it comes to this extremely ticklish matter.

In the meantime, Mr. Gill should go right on blowing his whistle. He's doing everyone affected a public service and should be commended for it.

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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