LANCASTER, Pa. -- For nearly 300 years the gentle, God-fearing Amish have worked this land, their backs turned on an outside world whose modern ways they do not want.
Now a proposed toxic-waste dump in the heart of these bucolic farm fields has cast a long shadow over their historic presence, portending a spectacular collision of cultures that has some Amish contemplating the first mass exodus since their flight from Europe.
State environmental officials have already approved the dump site, an old clay mine on a mountain at the headwaters of four watersheds serving soil-rich Lancaster County.
Activists, mobilized against what they call "an environmental time bomb," accuse its proprietor, Envirosafe Services of Pennsylvania Inc., of having targeted the site specifically because its neighbors -- thousands of simple, plain-living, buggy-driving Amish farmers, whose religious beliefs prohibit their involvement in "worldly" affairs -- were unlikely to mount a protest.
There is a very real possibility that great numbers of Amish will uproot their families and move elsewhere if the dump is built and heavy trucks come streaming through the pastoral country roads.
"They were looking for a patsy community, one that would just roll over," says Paul Connett, a St. Lawrence University chemist, who publishes a newsletter that monitors the nation's waste-management industry.
The company denies that presumption of Amish unreadiness to fight the facility was a factor in site selection. The clay mine is desirable for geological, hydrogeological and highway-access reasons, says C. Edward Ashby Jr., president of ESPI's parent company, Envirosafe Services Inc., headquartered with ESPI in King of Prussia.
In addition, he adds, it is "quite frankly" well situated geographically in the Eastern industrial marketplace.
"We are pragmatic environmentalists," says Mr. Ashby, who termed the proposed dump "a secure chemical landfill."
The dump will take in 200,000 cubic yards of waste per year for 10 years, Mr. Ashby says.
Karl Scheaffer, chief of the state Department of Environmental Resources' hazardous-waste siting team, says the application gives 310,000 as the figure.
Some dump opponents, relying on what Mr. Scheaffer calls obsolete early ESPI filings, insist that the real number is 440,000.
Whatever the volume, at $15 a ton the facility would mean millions of dollars in waste-disposal fees for Pennsylvania.
"It's going to be very profitable for the state to receive this waste," says a stop-the-dump activist, Conestoga Valley Association President Karen Aubrey Hottell.
Lancaster County has long been heavily industrial, as well as agricultural. More than 80 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund" sites in the county have been investigated as environmental contaminants. There is an infectious medical-waste incinerator, and there are many landfills.
"It's incredible," says another anti-dump leader, Alan Musselman, executive director of the Lancaster Farm Conservancy. "This is some of the world's most fertile land, and we are literally surrounded by garbage."
But what is now proposed is a toxic-waste receptacle, and its opponents -- also including the Sierra Club, Quakers, Greens, sportsmen's groups and others -- increasingly take it as a doomsday given that someday it will leak poison.
Actually, says Mr. Scheaffer, the first phase of the dump's application, approved two years ago, safely meets all state siting standards.
He acknowledges that "the citizens have in fact raised some issues that we would evaluate" when a more technical second-phase review begins.
Local opposition is focused on a review of area water resources.
Meanwhile, ESPI is dealing vigorously with setbacks as they occur. Denied a needed conditional-use permit by a local township in June, for example, the company is prepared to seek an unprecedented state override of the township's decision under a never-used 1980 law allowing the state to ignore local rulings.