John L. Menke, Montgomery County's environmental protection director, peered into the 10-foot-deep pit, where an average 1,850 tons of trash is dumped every day save Sunday. In the tangle of old tires, worn mattresses and tree branches were some reinforced steel rods and discarded lumber.

"That's good stuff," Menke lamented, raising his voice above the din of trucks in the cavernous county facility that is the relay point in trash's passage from home to landfill.

"No. Once it gets here, it's garbage," declared Alan Bergsten, chief of the county's solid waste division. "And it's here because no one wanted it."

Bergsten's simple observation about the unwanted nature of trash is at the heart of Montgomery County's developing garbage crisis. It is the same kind of problem that was dramatically illustrated for the nation recently by the peripatetic travels of a trash-laden barge from New York that could find no place to dump its load.

Montgomery County, which will run out of landfill space in 18 months, is by no means alone in facing the issue of where to dispose of its mountains of rubbish. In the next decade, half of the nation's municipal landfills will be used up, according to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimate based on a recent survey. Few replacement sites are being developed, particularly in the major metropolitan areas of the Northeast.

The Montgomery County Council, after 15 years of study and millions in consulting fees, will grapple again today with the question of whether to build a massive $170 million trash-to-energy incinerator in rural Dickerson in the western part of the county.

The decision has been delayed partly by a sharp political debate common in many jurisdictions: Nobody wants the facility in his back yard. The council initially planned the garbage facility in Shady Grove, but encountered strong opposition among the 200,000 residents in the Rockville-Gaithersburg area.

After dropping that plan in 1982, following complaints about incinerator pollution and traffic from garbage trucks, the county targeted Dickerson, whose population is only about 10,000.

The added cost to the county of using the more distant Dickerson site has been estimated at $17 to $22 per household a year, but the move to the sparsely settled site is seen as politically more popular.

"By its very nature, garbage is unwanted. You put it out of your house on the curb and you want and expect government to take it away," said County Council environmental analyst Stewart McKenzie. "Placement of these extremely unpopular {garbage disposal} facilities is perhaps the toughest decision facing government today," he said.

Locally, Prince George's County is bracing for a debate on landfill expansion. Fairfax County is moving ahead with plans for the construction of a massive trash-to-energy facility in the midst of fierce opposition by residents.

Alexandria and Arlington are jointly building a trash burning facility despite residents' belated concerns about health effects.

The District of Columbia is studying its options and Loudoun and Prince William counties are considering joint construction of an incinerator.

But the worst crunch is in Montgomery County, according to Metropolitan Washington Council of Government environmental specialist Trevis Markle, whose assessment was undisputed by county officials.

With its rapid pace of development, Montgomery's garbage problem is mounting: The amount of refuse is projected to increase from the current 550,000 tons annually to more than 758,000 tons by the year 2000.

If all the trash currently generated in the county in a year were placed in an area the size of a football field, it would create a mountain twice the height of the Washington Monument, according to county officials.

County Executive Sidney Kramer, concurring with the recommendation of his predecessor, Charles W. Gilchrist, has recommended the Dickerson site for the facility that would burn trash to produce steam, which would then be converted to electricity.

Kramer also has recommended some expansion of the Oaks Sanitary Landfill in Laytonsville for use until the new plant is completed.

Oaks also would receive the ash once the Dickerson plant starts burning trash, projected for late 1992 or 1993. The county also has launched a search for another landfill site.

The landfill expansion plan has already provoked sharp community opposition.

As the council debates the economics and technology of trash disposal, there is, in the words of council aide McKenzie, "a strong sense of deja vu."

"There is no solid waste disposal alternative available to Montgomery County, whether in the county or out of it, which has not been studied and considered at least twice, usually more," he said.

Montgomery County has a tradition of exhaustive analysis and public debate on issues. But officials concede that too much time and money have been spent, much of it wasted, on studying the issues of solid waste.

According to McKenzie, who favors a rapid decision on the site, the county is paying "five to six dollars a ton of inherited debt service just to pay for past studies, more than some parts of the country pay for waste disposal."

"Decide the darn thing," environmental Director Menke urged the council this month.

The council has promised a decision before it recesses in August, and there is a feeling by some council and executive department staff members that one factor that conspired against a decision in the past -- politics -- will now be a catalyst toward consensus.

The last time the trash issue was before the council for a vote was in 1982 -- an election year -- when the opposition to the Shady Grove site wiped out the project.

"One day there was a project and then all of a sudden the project was gone . . . . It went down so fast it made my head spin," Bergsten recalled.

In contrast, current council members are at the start of their four-year terms. And, if they do not take action, the Oaks Landfill could overflow with garbage a couple of years from now, just before political campaigns get under way.

The seven-member all-Democratic council is also in a position where it can avoid some political repercussions by simply ratifying Kramer's recommendation.

Indeed, according to council sources, Kramer is telling council members that former executive Gilchrist made the hard choice in picking Dickerson over Shady Grove and that council members should leave well enough alone, letting Kramer take the political heat.

Kramer's urging comes in the wake of comments by Council President Rose Crenca that the council will fully reevaluate the Shady Grove-or-Dickerson option.

While residents have cited potential health risks, county officials said new data shows that the mass burning technology poses no risks and the facility would be safe at either location.

Residents who opposed the Shady Grove location in 1982 dispute that contention.

Shady Grove has several advantages, according to McKenzie: The existing transfer station was built to be the receiving area of a mass burner; the county owns the land, and there would be no expensive transportation costs.

The more costly Dickerson plan involves hauling trash 22 miles by rail from Shady Grove to Dickerson and then hauling the ashes back to Shady Grove for trucking to a landfill.

It has been estimated that transportation and site preparation costs at Dickerson would increase annual disposal costs by $13 to $15 per ton of trash, or an annual increase of $17 to $22 per household.

The current disposal cost per household averages about $60 a year.

Kramer defends the Dickerson selection, saying a plant there is more compatible with the land because of its proximity to an existing Pepco electrical generating facility. McKenzie points out, however, that there is already light industrial use at Shady Grove, and the plant would not be out of place there.