To burn or to bury the 1,200 tons of trash generated every day in Anne Arundel County? The question facing county officials is whether it is better to risk air pollution with an incinerator, or ground water pollution and added costs with a landfill.
If they continue to bury the trash, even an expanded county landfill will reach capacity in 15 years. Building a new one, even if space could be found, would cost an estimated $1 million an acre.
But mention a popular alternative -- a waste-to-energy incinerator -- and red flags are raised.
"It's a stupid idea and it's a ridiculous idea," snapped James Martin, president of the Severn River Association. "It takes solid waste and all the hazardous materials in it, vaporizes it and spews it out into the atmosphere."
A task force looking at Anne Arundel's solid waste needs into the next century called such an incinerator "an innovative and cost-effective way of dealing with trash.
"We're coming up on the year 2000 and we're not doing anything differently than what the Indians used to do" -- dumping trash in a hole and burying it, said A. Newth Morris III, a Glen Burnie businessman who chaired the panel.
Nearly everyone involved in the county's waste disposal
deliberations agrees that residents and businesses must continue to recycle and compost trash as much as possible. And they agree that you can't recycle everything. But they don't agree on what to do with the remaining 400,000 tons a year.
Incinerator proponents, such as Mr. Morris, emphasize that his plan ensures that "what is left over after you've recycled and composted can be disposed of as efficiently and as environmentally soundly as possible."
Opponents say bury it. Maximize recycling, encourage consumers to re-use products instead of discarding them and place the rest "in a properly operated and well-developed landfill," said Sen. Gerald W. Winegrad, known for his environmental activism.
But the county's recycling goal is only 20 percent of the trash generated. Mr. Winegrad insists that figure could increase to 50 percent "if the county made an all-out effort to reach commercial-industrial [users] and went to yard-waste mulching."
Even the higher figure isn't enough, incinerator fans say. It only will delay the inevitable: closing the Millersville landfill and trying to find another site, a difficult task because of the risk to water in the large number of aquifers under the county.
"It's uncertain, given the geology of the county, that you could site another Millersville within our borders," said Tom Andrews, the county's chief environmental officer.
Incineration reduces the trash volume by 90 percent, Mr. Morris said. Millersville would become a processing site where the leftover ash would be deposited and trash that is buried there now could be mined and burned, creating even more landfill capacity.
"The facility there could then be able to go on in perpetuity," he said.
Opponents of incineration worry about the environment and economics.
They fear emissions from the smokestack -- mercury and dioxin -- and what is left in the ashes after the trash is burned, mercury and heavy metals, such as cadmium and lead.
According to a 1992 study by Clean Water Action, solid waste incinerator emissions are the fastest-growing source of mercury in the county's air.
More than 12,000 pounds of mercury is spewed into the Maryland skies each year. And 5,000 pounds of that comes from three municipal waste incinerators: the BRESCO and Pulaski plants in Baltimore, and the Harford County incinerator at Aberdeen Proving Ground.
"That's a lot when you consider that one thermometer of mercury can contaminate a 50-acre lake," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, state director of Clean Water Action.
But mercury emissions can be controlled by injecting activated carbon, which absorbs the mercury, into the smokestack and catching it all in a fabric filter, said Michael A. Gagliardo, executive director of the Northeast Maryland Waste Disposal Authority.
"The emissions from these facilities have been tested. The emissions are known, and the emissions are very low, especially compared with [coal and oil] burned to produce electricity," Mr. Gagliardo said.
The ash, however, could be classified as a hazardous waste. The U.S. Supreme Court has already heard arguments to settle a difference of opinion between two appellate courts, and a decision is expected this spring.
"If that goes against the incinerators, I can tell you, they're in big trouble," Mr. Winegrad said. The ash, instead of going to the local landfill or even being used as road fill, would have to go to a much more expensive hazardous waste landfill.
Mr. Gagliardo counters that field tests by the Environmental Protection Agency have shown that any heavy metals in the ash bind to the ash particles and do not leach from landfills into ground water.
Incinerator opponents also fear that burning trash gives residents and businesses no incentive to recycle.
"Once you turn these things on, you can't turn them off," said Ms. Schmidt-Perkins. "When you have an incinerator, it has to burn. You have to keep feeding it, and so you have less incentive to do other things."
And to top it off, they add, incinerators are economic disasters.
Can be avoided
An August article in the Wall Street Journal cites several municipalities that built large incinerators in the 1980s that don't have enough trash to operate efficiently. The facilities have begun charging high tipping fees to local haulers, who can't take their trash out of the jurisdiction, and cut-rate fees to attract haulers from other jurisdictions.
Incinerator proponents admit overbuilding was a problem in some municipalities, but say that it can be avoided by designing the incinerator properly.
"Some facilities made a conscious decision to oversize the facilities, so that until they needed the capacity, they would play the spot market," Mr. Gagliardo said.
The great advantage to incinerators, its proponents argue, is the ability to generate electricity. When the facility under construction in Montgomery County begins operation in 1995, it will generate power that the county will sell to Potomac Edison to help pay off construction bonds.
"After you've recycled and done all you can, then what's left is basically a raw material," Mr. Morris said. "What [an incinerator] is doing is converting a resource into another resource."
In addition to generating energy, the ash could be used in road construction or concrete manufacturing.
"These kinds of uses are very common in Europe," Mr. Gagliardo said.
But the idea of industrial uses of the ash provoke horrified reactions from some.
"This stuff is toxic!" said Ms. Schmidt-Perkins of Clean Water Action. "Roads break down, and the mercury flies into the air."
What's to come?
So, what will the county include in the 10-year update of its Solid Waste Management Plan it is to submit to state environmental officials early next year?
Most likely, plans to build the final cell at the Millersville landfill, which will extend its life until 2008, will proceed, despite the opposition of nearby residents. "I think that a prudent course at this point is for the county to plan to go ahead," said Mr. Andrews, the environmental officer.
And the county probably will want to examine plans for regional waste disposal that would include recycling, composting and incineration, he said.
County Executive Robert R. Neall signed an agreement in
February with other members of the Baltimore Metropolitan Council to find sites for those shared facilities.
Fort Meade could be one of the potential sites for a regional incinerator. The National Security Agency first floated the idea a year ago, saying it wanted to replace an antiquated steam plant and use power from the incinerator for a backup generator.
NSA is conducting a feasibility study that should be finished "within the next few months," said Judi Emmel, an NSA spokeswoman.
"Our studies indicate that a waste-to-energy conversion project at Fort Meade would not only be highly cost effective, but would PTC also afford a unique opportunity for the federal government to enter into a partnership with state and local governments," she said.
Officials in Carroll and Howard counties, neither of which would generate enough trash alone to support an incinerator, are looking at that option and would be likely candidates with Anne Arundel for a joint venture.