In Anne Arundel County, disposing of tomorrow's trash may hinge on mining yesterday's garbage.
County Executive John G. Gary wants Anne Arundel to become the first jurisdiction in Maryland, and one of a handful nationally, to mine the trash entombed in a municipal dump.
He plans to have portions of the 22-year-old Millersville Landfill that do not have modern environmental safeguards dug up to make room for a proposed trash and sludge composting plant and to save the county the cost of cleaning up pollution problems.
"I want to eliminate a future liability that could come back and bite us in the butt," Mr. Gary said.
A small but growing number of communities across the country have turned to mining to recover recyclables, conserve increasingly precious landfill space and reclaim some areas that pose environmental threats.
Mining operations are under way at about a dozen landfills across the country, said Eugene Salerni, a partner with SSB Environmental, an Albany, N.Y., firm that pioneered the field. About 40 more communities are planning mining projects, he said.
Excavating trash would make room for a composting plant that could eliminate the need to build another 500-acre landfill in the county, said John Brusnighan, director of the county Department of Public Works. The plant would use trash-munching microbes to turn garbage into fertilizer in about 60 days.
Millersville will not be full until 2007, but it takes about 10 years to obtain permits and build a modern landfill. So the county's long-range garbage disposal plans call for Mr. Gary to find a home for a new landfill by April.
Mr. Gary is loath to comply because building landfills is politically unpopular and extremely expensive. Some estimates place the cost at $1 million an acre.
"It is the kind of thing that you do when you decide to retire from politics," said Mr. Gary, who was elected to his first four-year term last fall.
"I'm thankful my parents have a place in Florida. If I ever did it, at least I would have some place I could go," he added.
Landfills, many of which already were closed when public recycling programs began, can contain valuable scrap metals, experts say. But the real reason to mine a landfill, they say, is the land itself.
"Generally, the presence of scrap metal is not going to affect the bottom line," said Gordon Boyd, Mr. Salerni's partner at SSB Environmental. "The thing we try to get people to look into is the intrinsic value of the property."
An unlined dump could be excavated, the trash disposed of safely in a modern landfill and the original dump site reused for parks, residential or commercial development or even a modern landfill, he said.
Lancaster, Pa., has excavated garbage from its Frey Farm Landfill for the past four years to fuel a waste-to-energy incinerator and preserve landfill space, said Gary Forster, an engineer with the Lancaster Solid Waste Authority. SSB Environmental is excavating a 7-acre landfill in Hague, N.Y. -- the first attempt to remove an entire dump.
When the project is completed next summer, the town will have avoided the high cost of capping and monitoring an abandoned landfill and will be able to reuse the property as a park.
"We're finding once the trash is removed, the property is quite valuable," Mr. Salerni said.
Anne Arundel County already has some experience with mining. It shifted garbage from one disposal area to another last year to create a marsh and a pond the state requested to compensate for wetlands that had been destroyed there.
Still, mining is not for everyone, said Mr. Salerni, a member of a Solid Waste Association of North America panel attempting to draft national mining standards. Digging up old garbage can be expensive, smelly and potentially hazardous. That must be weighed against the financial and environmental costs of leaving the trash where it is.
Anne Arundel County has hired a consultant to analyze whether mining and composting garbage make sense financially and environmentally. The consultant's report is due this winter.
"Your goal ultimately would be to save money and improve the environment," Mr. Boyd said. "If you can do that, then you should."