Early bird tickets for Baltimore’s BEST party on sale now!

Landfills: the trouble with trash Counties grapple with the high costs of cleaning dumps; $1 billion plus will be spent; Local officials differ on how they define, deal with pollution


Where new suburbs and old trash meet, there's trouble.

Throughout the Baltimore region, county landfills ooze toxic chemicals into streams and wells. The cost of cleaning these landfills -- along with the cost of future trash removal and disposal -- poses a staggering financial problem for local governments and taxpayers.

"Eventually it'll become the second most expensive item in government -- after education," warns James M. Irvin, Howard County public works director.

Statewide, it will cost $1.15 billion over the next several decades to meet regulatory requirements for Maryland's 32 public landfills, according to an April report commissioned by the state Department of the Environment.

That includes closing landfills and capping them with plastic to keep out rainwater, monitoring ground water for decades for signs of contamination and making sure counties are insured against future liability from pollution.

Already, 11 of 19 county-owned landfills in the counties around Baltimore have polluted the ground water near them. Baltimore has one operating landfill in the city's southern tip, but that landfill has not been troubled by pollution so far.

In the past three years, Anne Arundel, Carroll, Harford, Howard and Baltimore counties have begun to feel the financial sting -- with the five counties having budgeted a total of about $100 million for the cleanup and prevention of pollution at landfills.

More landfill costs are on the way, expenses for which Maryland's counties generally aren't prepared, says Richard W. Collins, director of the state's Waste Management Administration.

County governments have not taken a regional approach to landfill pollution problems. The only major regional effort in the works is a composting facility in Howard that also will serve Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties.

No uniformity

Moreover, coping on their own with landfill pollution, county governments have chosen starkly different paths.

"One county may consider it to be under control, but what they may consider under control may be out of control by the standards of another county," says Donald L. Gill, a Marriottsville resident and longtime critic of Howard County's landfill record.

For example:

* In Bel Air, Harford County officials fret over the possibility that polluted ground water from a closed landfill might contaminate a nearby stream. Meanwhile, Howard officials hope a stream will carry pollutants away from residential wells near a landfill in Woodbine.

* Neighbors of another Howard landfill say the county doesn't test their wells often enough. Meanwhile, residents near dumps in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties plead for anything that resembles regular testing.

* It's costing Howard $10.5 million to pipe in water to residents -- and millions more to stop the dumping -- after a Marriottsville landfill polluted a nearby aquifer. But Anne Arundel officials rejected a proposal to bring water a short distance to landfill neighbors in Millersville.

Abating landfill pollution is only part of the headache the suburbs are facing as they churn out a mountain of trash.

The price of trash

Counties that once subsidized residential trash pickup by charging commercial trash haulers to use their dumps now expect to lose millions of dollars to huge private landfills in western Maryland and out of state. The result: higher bills for public trash pickup.

In the past four years, as it continued grappling with landfill cleanup, Anne Arundel has more than doubled its homeowners' annual trash collection fee to nearly $200 per home. Howard is considering the area's first trash pickup fees based on how much residents throw away, fees that would start at $100 a year per household next year.

Still, it's the old leaky landfills -- which must be cleaned up under federal and state regulations -- that pose the most intractable trash problems.

In 1970, for example, Anne Arundel dealt with its trash disposal needs by buying a private landfill in Glen Burnie. Now the county has to spend millions to clean up the toxic mess from the days when industrial waste was dumped there legally.

Howard's Alpha Ridge landfill, which opened in 1980, offered what was then sophisticated ground water protection -- a layer of compacted clay that was supposed to keep contaminants from escaping.

But officials and regulators now know that clay doesn't work and that new landfills must be fitted with expensive plastic liners and pipes to collect contaminated liquid for proper disposal.

In 1987, Harford was the first county in the area to adopt the plastic-liner method. Carroll and Baltimore counties followed in 1988, and since then Howard and Anne Arundel have opened similar facilities.

Although counties must comply with federal regulations on how to cap old landfills, most landfills aren't dangerous enough to warrant federal cleanup orders. That gives counties great leeway in dealing with chemicals that seep out.

Cleanup efforts vary

As a result, counties' cleanup efforts vary according to budget concerns, pressure from citizens and the environmental sensitivity of local officials.

These days, Howard, one of the state's wealthiest counties, appears to be the area's most aggressive in dealing with leaky landfills.

Faced with ground water contamination at three county landfills, officials opted to pump water from underneath and treat it for toxic solvents before discharging it into nearby streams -- a process that could go on for 30 years.

At the closed Carrs Mill Landfill in Marriottsville -- the site of 900 illegally dumped drums, many containing carcinogens -- the county was given the choice of a $94,000 system to eliminate toxic vapors or a $1.1 million bill to haul away tons of contaminated soil.

Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker decided to reassure local residents by doing both -- even though experts said the cheaper option would have been sufficient.

"It's not just their peace of mind, but my peace of mind, and the county government's," says Mr. Ecker. "I'm not sure what will work or what will not work."

Of course, not every county government would take such drastic steps unless forced to do so -- and they may not be needed in the end, says Edward J. Bouwer, professor of environmental engineering at the Johns Hopkins University. He calls the Carrs Mill cleanup an "extreme case."

"In the long run, it would be nice, maybe, to do that at all the sites, but we really don't have that kind of money," Dr. Bouwer says.

Still, Howard County's approach to landfill cleanup has won over Dr. Gill, formerly one of its harshest critics. "Before, they were very complacent," the biochemist says. "When they became aware, they acted decisively and effectively."

When officials act less aggressively, however, they run the risk of being slammed by residents who want to be assured that everything possible is being done.

In Anne Arundel, for example, the county says that its Millersville landfill is not responsible for the chemicals contaminating neighbors' wells.

Even so, "for the peace of mind of our neighbors, we elected to pay for redrilling of [four] residential wells into a deeper strata that cannot be affected by anything from the landfill," says James Pittman, deputy director for Anne Arundel's Waste Management Services.

Not good enough

Yet that isn't good enough for Rob McKay, who lives near the Millersville landfill. He pays $300 a year to get his well water tested and will do so until the county agrees to test it for him. The tests have shown no contamination.

And in Baltimore County, landfill neighbors remain at odds with county, state and federal officials over that county's approach to the Parkton Landfill, where it treats the material that oozes out -- but not the contaminated ground water underneath.

County and state officials say the Parkton landfill isn't responsible for the contaminated residential wells. And a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency evaluation in 1993 concluded that the situation wasn't grave enough to warrant federal intervention.

But disgruntled Parkton residents plan to ask the EPA to reconsider its evaluation later this month, says Richard W. McQuaid, a biochemist and activist who lives four miles from the landfill.

Such conflicts may help explain why Howard officials bend over backward to satisfy the concern of neighbors -- even at the risk of incurring a hefty cleanup bill.

"We set up the process to deal with the public," says Mr. Irvin, the public works director. "When we get off-track, they let us know."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad