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Scientist stirs emotions over toxin-leaking landfill


Donald L. Gill's specialty is what makes people twitch.

Dr. Gill, a professor of biological chemistry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, has for 11 years been studying how the smallest trace of calcium makes cells operate.

It controls cell growth, it makes muscle cells contract, it makes heart cells beat and it makes neural cells send messages to the brain.

At home in Marriottsville, Dr. Gill has injected his own dose of activism into the toxin-leaking Alpha Ridge Landfill, causing plenty of twitching in Howard County government. The landfill is about two miles south of the Carroll-Howard line, near his community.

"Things are moving much faster than I even dared hope," he says of the recent successes gained by landfill opponents. "But the battle is not won yet."

A study aimed at expanding the landfill, which got Dr. Gill and fellow neighborhood activist L. Scott Muller into the fight in the first place, was dropped by Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker in February.

On May 12, Mr. Ecker proposed bringing public water to the landfill area, a move that would satisfy the most vital of the landfill opponents' demands. The county executive has appointed the two activists to the Alpha Ridge Landfill Advisory Committee, which is charged with keeping area residents informed about landfill testing.

Despite Dr. Gill's opposition to the expansion study, and his sometimes-bitter criticism of the executive, Mr. Ecker praises Dr. Gill for pushing solid waste planning into public prominence.

"It's one of our most pressing problems, and nobody cared about it. I think Dr. Gill has helped bring it to the public's attention," Mr. Ecker says.

A confrontational approach

Bearded, bespectacled, balding and British, Dr. Gill looks the part of the quintessential scientist and academic.

But get him talking or writing about the landfill that's a couple of miles from his home, about the government's broken promises and about the threat of contaminated drinking water, and Dr. Gill sounds more like Nathan Hale.

A letter Dr. Gill wrote to The Sun a year ago was a blistering salvo against Howard County Council members Paul Farragut, Darrel Drown and Shane Pendergrass for approving money to study the expansion of Alpha Ridge Landfill "at the very time Alpha Ridge is shaping up to become the worst toxic waste disaster in Maryland's history.

"Howard countians, rise up and tell these so-called representatives we're mad as hell and we're not going to take it anymore! We're sick and tired of mindless avoidance policies on an issue that's going to destroy our county. No more landfills, anywhere in the county. We can do a lot better. And we can do a lot better than Drown, Farragut and Pendergrass," Dr. Gill wrote.

Mr. Muller, Dr. Gill's partner in the landfill fight, says Dr. Gill's strident tone counters his own more measured approach.

"He appeals to people's emotions," says Mr. Muller. "I think I try to appeal to people's reasoning, which may not be the best way to go."

Being the reasonable one, it's not surprising that Mr. Muller was appointed by Mr. Ecker to Howard County's Solid Waste Advisory Committee in 1991.

'We live for the outdoors'

Despite his frequent jousts with county politicians, Dr. Gill can't vote for or against them. Born in London, he is a British subject with permanent U.S. residency.

In fact, the 39-year-old scientist had no intention of staying when he and his wife, Julie, moved to the Baltimore area from England in 1979.

But after a three-year fellowship at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Dr. Gill was offered his own laboratory and a teaching post at the university's biochemistry department in Baltimore, and decided to make his home here.

Now he heads the university's biochemistry graduate program and a staff of seven conducting research in the way calcium controls cell activity. Five years ago, the Gills moved from Catonsville to a wooded five-acre lot in Marriottsville next to Patapsco State Park.

"We live for the outdoors," Dr. Gill says as he gestures toward a path to a tree-shaded screened house where he, Ms. Gill and their 5-year-old son Jonathan spend much of their free time.

Herds of deer visit often. The family's chocolate-colored retriever, too lazy to chase them, watches the deer munch on azaleas and other plants growing from an extensive network of square terraces Dr. Gill has constructed of 4-by-4-inch wooden beams.

"We're just devoted to everything that's alive," Dr. Gill says. "Everything that's wild has a right to exist, and we should try to protect them as best as we can."

He says that while there are many ways that people harm the environment, "the landfill is sort of a blatant one."

VOCs an avocation

Dr. Gill can jump quickly from an animated lecture on cell receptors, on which he is truly an expert, to one about volatile organic compounds, which he has made his avocation.

VOCs, as they're called by environmental engineers, are the solvents used in everyday products that cut grease, strip oil-based paint or remove stains from clothing. Common products such as nail polish remover and typewriter correction fluid contain them.

Suspected of causing cancer, VOCs are the chief contaminants found in monitoring wells next to Alpha Ridge since 1990.

It was one of Dr. Gill's pointed letters in January that alerted members of the Solid Waste Advisory Committee and the Howard County Council about the disturbing results of tests conducted at Alpha Ridge last fall.

The tests showed that not only was water below the landfill contaminated, but that pollutants had seeped into bedrock deeper than county public works officials believed was possible.

Bedrock had been touted as the barrier that would protect area residents' drinking water from contamination.

Selected tests on residential wells near Alpha Ridge showed no contamination last fall, but Dr. Gill believes it is only a matter of time until the landfill pollution spreads to residential wells.

Long-term plan needed

Although getting public water to the Marriottsville area has always been one of Dr. Gill's major demands, there is still more to be done, he says.

"I don't think it solves it, but it goes a long way to alleviate the problem. It takes the pressure of their danger and their health out of the equation."

Although public water will remove the main health problem posed by the landfill, what the county needs is a long-term solid waste management program to make landfilling unnecessary, or only for something such as ash from an incinerator.

"You can't just walk away from it and say, 'That was a mistake, and we won't do it anywhere else.' "

Ship trash out of state

In the meantime, Browning-Ferris Industries, one of the area's leading waste haulers, has told Mr. Ecker and the Howard County Council it would like to bid on a proposal to close Alpha Ridge and ship the county's trash to a private, out-of-state landfill. Dr. Gill supports the proposal, a position that's likely to again put him in conflict with the county executive.

The Ecker administration is "saying we don't have a choice" about shipping trash out of the county, Dr. Gill says. "We're saying, 'There is a choice.' "

Mr. Ecker has repeatedly said the county should "take care of its own," and not foist its problems onto other areas -- a view shared by Miriam Mahowald, chairwoman of the Solid Waste Advisory Committee.

"My problem is that [Dr. Gill is] not seeing beyond his own back yard," Ms. Mahowald said. "He thinks it's OK to ship it out to someone else's back yard."

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