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Ecker wants to scale back landfill cover Plan for smaller cap on Alpha Ridge worries neighbors; Contamination feared; Executive says change will save $3 million, not sacrifice safety


Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker is scaling back plans to cap the Alpha Ridge Landfill in Marriottsville -- a decision worried neighbors say could increase the risk of contaminants from the landfill, endangering area residents.

Ecker said the new capping plan is less expensive -- as much as $3 million cheaper than the earlier plan -- but no less safe. It still would comply with state and federal environmental regulations, he said.

"We're not going to sacrifice safety for cost," Ecker said. "I would never do that."

His decision comes as county officials begin a broad study of possible health threats from Alpha Ridge, including the possibility that several cancer cases among residents in a small community along Old Frederick Road are related to the landfill.

Some of the landfill's neighbors have long contended that chemicals leaking from Alpha Ridge could hurt the health of area residents -- and they were quick to criticize Ecker's new, less-costly capping plan.

"Once again, they're going cheap," said L. Scott Muller of Marriottsville, a longtime critic of the county's handling of Alpha Ridge. "God knows what kind of problems they're going to have."

At issue is the size of the impermeable plastic cover for the landfill, which is scheduled to stop accepting county waste in a week. Waste will then be trucked to a Virginia landfill.

The job of the plastic cover is to keep rainwater from seeping through buried waste, which can pull landfill toxins into ground water. The plastic cover, in conjunction with a grid of gas collection pipes, also helps control the gases that the landfill emits.

Under the county's original plan for capping Alpha Ridge, the plastic cover would have extended across all 68 acres of one of two cells at the landfill -- the older, unlined one. The landfill's other cell -- smaller, newer and lined -- is not scheduled to be capped for several years.

The county's new plan would put the plastic cover on only the flat top of the older landfill -- an area of about 25 acres. The remaining area, 43 mostly sloping acres, would be covered by a dense soil, probably clay.

County officials say the dense soil would block the flow of water into the waste nearly as well as the plastic liner, particularly on the landfill's sides, where slopes would prevent standing water.

They acknowledge that some extra water would flow through the waste into the ground water, but they say it could be controlled by the system of 20 pumping wells already planned for the site.

Those wells are supposed to pull contaminated water out of the ground and into machines that eliminate the toxins -- which evaporate easily -- by exposing them to air.

As for landfill gases, county officials say the dense soil, in conjunction with the gas-collection pipes, would work as well as the plastic cover.

The entire project, including the cap and the system of wells, would cost an estimated $15 million if the plastic cover extended across all 68 acres of the landfill, say county officials.

The new plan, by using a clay cover on all but 25 acres, would cost between $12 million and $13.5 million, they said.

"The previous one was a bit of an overkill," said Public Works Director James M. Irvin. "So we're going with one that's a little more cost-effective."

But some landfill neighbors are skeptical of the plan, particularly because most of the capped landfill would be sealed only by dense dirt or clay -- the same materials that are underneath the waste.

In the years before Alpha Ridge's construction in 1980, engineers and county officials assured Marriottsville residents that such a soil liner would prevent serious contamination of ground water, news reports at the time indicate.

Contamination from the landfill has not been detected in any residential wells, but testing wells on the site show that it has spread farther and faster than officials and engineers said was possible.

"We had a problem with clay once before. The clay liner didn't work," said Benjamin Williams of Marriottsville, whose complaints about cancer cases in his neighborhood recently prompted renewed county scrutiny of Alpha Ridge's possible health effects.

In Williams' community of 70 residents living 1,000 yards northeast of the landfill, 10 people have battled cancer -- and seven have died -- since the landfill opened.

Eight of those cases have come in the past eight years. An average Maryland community of 70 residents has about one new cancer case every three years.

Howard County officials recently began studying the cancer cases. In a newsletter to 500 Marriottsville residents, officials asked for reports of cancer. They have also promised to write letters to the residents in Williams' part of Marriottsville.

Worries about contamination from the landfill also have prompted county officials to spend $13 million piping county water to 300 homes in the area.

And county officials plan soon to begin studying the gases emitted from the landfill -- a path of contamination only recently getting government scrutiny.

Irvin said the air testing is unlikely to reveal contamination.

"We'll do some tests to disprove it," Irvin said, "but the experts tell us there is 99.9 percent chance that we won't pick up anything."

The new capping plan will be among the subjects at a public meeting Tuesday evening at Mount View Middle School.

But Ecker said he has already made his decision and will propose the new plan formally April 1 in his capital budget request for the county.

The County Council must approve the overall spending plan, but it has limited power over the details of particular projects.

And Republican Councilman Charles C. Feaga, who represents Marriottsville, said he supports the plan for the less-expensive cap.

"I think the experts have been working on this," Feaga said. "We pay them good money. They give us good advice."

Pub Date: 1/26/97

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