The newest section of the WB&A; Trail cuts through a rural part of Odenton, a thin, neat mat of pavement on an old railroad bed.
And as people drawn to the yet-to-be-opened path are discovering, it also bisects a sprawling and potentially dangerous mess: hundreds of tons of plastic debris strewn about.
County officials, who started construction last spring on the new 2-mile segment, said they discovered the waste in July and don't know where it came from. The county spent about $47,000 to remove 230 tons of trash to make way for the trail section from Strawberry Lake Way in Piney Orchard to Patuxent Road.
Spokeswoman Marina Cooper acknowledged that a large amount of garbage is still deeply entrenched in the ground and extends to the foot of the riverbed of the Little Patuxent. She said the dump likely has been there for decades, making it unlikely an illegal dumper will be caught.
Doreen A. Strothman, president of the Piney Orchard Community Association, said county officials need to supply more answers.
"How long has it been there?" Strothman asked. "Why was it disposed of there as opposed to a more legitimate dumping site? It is close to the river, so it makes you wonder. Given what we know about the effect it could have on the environment, we definitely need to get to the bottom of who put it there and hold them accountable."
According to a report by Environmental Resources Management, an Annapolis company hired by the county to inspect the site on each side of the Washington Baltimore and Annapolis Trail, the debris is "nonhazardous" and consists "primarily of solid plastic wires of varying thickness; melted plastic material fused into small solid masses; empty and unlabeled plastic bags; and powder of varying colors."
The waste was removed in August and taken to the Millersville Landfill, according to the report.
"We made sure it was excavated from any area that would be near the trail," Cooper said. "Now the remaining clean-up obviously is to remove the rest of the trash around the area, which is very unsightly. It's definitely a priority. What started out as a remedial item turned out to be a much larger task."
Councilman Jamie Benoit, who was made aware of the situation by a constituent, called it a "massive cleanup" and urged an investigation.
"We built this trail knowing this was here," Benoit said. "This stuff didn't just pop out of the ground. ... I don't know if this was a cover-up in the making or what. This is going to be extremely expensive to clean."
After his concerns became public last week, the county contacted the Maryland Department of the Environment's solid waste program Wednesday, said administrator Edward Dexter. He said the county was "under no obligation under the law" to do so.
Dexter said the department's environmental crimes unit has inspected the dump site, but it is unlikely that anyone would be prosecuted because the "statute of limitations has long passed."
Dexter said his agency would consult with the county on the best course of action, which will begin with an inspection of the site by representatives of his agency.
"It sounds like what's largely visible on the surface is plastic, which is not biodegradable, really," Dexter said. "It's just sitting there. There's a number of options on how the agency deals with these situations. It depends on the level of threat."
Some questioned the county's judgment in not disclosing the situation earlier.
"Public disclosure and transparency are the way to handle all of these issues," said Madonna N. Brennan, a spokeswoman for Crofton First, a grass-roots environmental group. "We trust our elected officials to do what's right for our safety and health, and we hope they do the right thing."
This section of the trail links Bowie to Odenton and connects to the Odenton Road Hiker/Biker trail to provide access to Odenton Town Center. When completed, the trail will form a component of two national trails: the north-south East Coast Greenway and the east-west American Discovery Trail.
The cost of the $1.2 million project was split by the state and county.