A citizens' appeal has put the $3 million expansion of Harford's only public landfill on hold and forced the county to export some of its trash to conserve space.
The appeal, which could take up to a year to resolve, makes it unlikely that the long-planned expansion will be built before the Harford Waste Disposal Center runs out of space at its 66-acre site in Street.
The county began shipping trash to an incinerator in Baltimore last month at a cost of $60 per ton.
"It ain't cheap to pay for transportation costs and disposal," said Frank Henderson, Harford's deputy director of environmental affairs.
The county transported about 3,000 tons of trash from the landfill last month and will probably ship a similar amount this month, during what is traditionally the facility's busiest season, Henderson said.
Assuming normal use, the landfill will reach its 2.3 million-ton capacity at the end of next year. It is hoped that exporting some of the trash each month will extend the life of the landfill by several months, Henderson said.
"If we don't export, we will have to turn hundreds away from the landfill just on Saturdays," Henderson said.
Whenever possible, Harford will burn trash at the Harford County Resource Recovery Facility in Joppa, a waste-to-energy plant that burns about 120,000 tons of trash annually, more than twice the amount that goes to the landfill. But that plant is operating at capacity.
Diane Burrier, a Street resident who has led a group of area neighbors opposed to expanding the landfill, criticized the county for "making no attempt to inform the public that they have been sending away trash."
"People are still lining up with truckloads of trash every day," she said, adding that the county is using the appeal "as a scapegoat to mask its own poor planning."
But Henderson demurred.
"We are not trying to hide anything from anybody," he said. "We are still burying trash, but we have to do what we can to extend the life of the landfill until the next cells open."
Nearly eight years ago, county officials initiated the application process with the Maryland Department of the Environment in expectation of securing a permit to construct several new collection cells on 77 acres northeast of the landfill's receiving area.
Plans call for the cells to be lined with layers of clay, plastic and a material aimed at protecting groundwater from contamination. MDE and Harford officials have held several public hearings on the project.
The last hearing in November drew the largest and most vocal audience, with nearly 100 residents protesting the project. Several of those residents filed the appeal.
In April, the state granted preliminary approval to the county's permit request. The residents group filed an appeal last month, citing concerns about environmental issues, effects on property values, and quality-of- life considerations that might result from the expansion.
After reviewing the appeal, MDE decided it had merit and referred it to the state's Office of Administrative Hearings.
"Technically, the residents are protesting to MDE," Henderson said. "The burden of proof is on the residents."
A prehearing conference will be scheduled in August, at which time officials will set a date for the hearing.
At that conference, Richard Klein, attorney for the residents, said he must notify the state of any expert witnesses who will testify and how that testimony relates to the appeal.
In the meantime, the county continues to add about 50,500 tons of trash annually to collector cells at the landfill, where nearly 2 million tons are already buried.
Although Harford boasts Maryland's highest recycling rate - 64 percent of all waste is recycled - Henderson has said for months that the county is "running up against the end of capacity."
Expansion plans also are in the works for the waste-to-energy plant. Though the County Council recently struck $60 million for the project from the capital improvement budget for next year, it authorized $1 million for a study on whether to expand the plant or build a larger one.
Henderson recently began exporting excess trash from the Joppa plant, which has a daily capacity of 360 tons, to the city.