Opponents of a long-planned expansion at Harford's only government-operated landfill have argued for nearly a year that the project will hurt the environment, their health and property values, but they have based their appeal to the Maryland Office of Administrative Hearings solely on water issues.
They have asked an administrative law judge to withhold a permit to expand the Harford Waste Disposal Center in Street, saying a larger landfill will degrade residential wells and Deer Creek, a nearby water source for thousands of county residents.
And as the case proceeds, the 20-year-old landfill is rapidly reaching its 2.3 million-ton capacity.
Construction of the expansion is on indefinite hold. At its current rate of 50,500 tons of trash annually, the landfill will have to close at the end of next year.
The county has worked for nearly a decade to secure a construction permit from the Maryland Department of the Environment for the $3 million expansion. The residents filed their appeal on May 17, about a month after the state said it would issue the permit.
Their attorney will argue that the county has failed to create an effective storm-water management plan and that landfill run-off will pollute drinking water. Harford officials have said they will meet all requirements once construction begins.
Administrative Law Judge S. J. Nichols, who held a pre-hearing conference Thursday, must decide whether the county has demonstrated compliance, whether that compliance will result in a reduction in the groundwater supply and ultimately decrease flow in Deer Creek and, finally, whether the expansion will harm surrounding properties.
In the past several months, residents have monitored operations at the landfill and have reported several alleged violations to county public works and state environmental officials.
State inspectors make monthly visits to the landfill and have found no outstanding violations, said Frank Henderson, Harford's deputy director of environmental affairs.
"We are saying expansion plans are poor and that the landfill is already poorly managed," said Diane Burrier, whose home overlooks the landfill. Financial considerations forced opponents to choose one issue, Burrier said.
"We had to narrow [our focus] to the best legal issue, which is the groundwater," she said. "The county has put us in this position. We don't have the resources to argue every issue. We are paying experts to testify. One expert wanted $25,000 for his testimony."
J. Carroll Holzer, a Towson attorney representing the homeowners, said he will focus on storm- water design and failure to comply with the storm-water management plan.
"From a legal standpoint, this is the most significant issue," he said. "Obviously, the citizens have other issues, including currently existing practices. But this judge will not decide on those."
The court, an independent agency based in Hunt Valley, provides residents an opportunity to resolve their issues with decisions made by a state department, in this case the Maryland Department of the Environment.
Nichols vowed to reach "an efficient adjudication in this dispute" within an eight-month timeline that began when the court received the residents' appeal.
At a preliminary hearing Thursday, Nichols said he would not deviate from the timeline.
Residents must offer proof that the state erred in issuing a permit for the expansion, while the MDE and the county will defend the permit, he said.
"The issue is whether the permit sufficiently addresses the issues," said Andrea Baker, assistant attorney general who represents MDE. "There is no specific error."
The state requires a water management plan for the project. Although the county did not include such a plan in its application, officials said it would be part of the expansion's design.
"It is not enough for the county to say it will comply with the law sometime in the future," Holzer said. "They should have shown how they would meet the requirements in the permitting process."
Nichols will hear the state's arguments on a motion for dismissal Oct. 3.
"It could all end on Oct. 3, depending on [the outcome of] the state's motion, but that does not mean the citizens can't appeal to the Court of Special Appeals," Holzer said.
If the case moves forward, Nichols has allowed for five full days of testimony starting Dec. 17.
"We are not changing these dates," he said. "Make adjustments for that length of day."
With a resolution months away , Henderson is trying to conserve space. Several months ago, the county began hauling a portion of its trash to other locations outside Harford.
"We are looking at where it can go and for how long, so that we can keep the landfill open as long as possible," Henderson said. "Without exporting trash, we cannot extend the life of the landfill."
Henderson has added $1.5 million to his budget for hauling and fees at other landfills.
"If this continues, we will need $3 million more a year," he said.