To burn or not to burn -- that is the $8 million question about to be answered by the Howard County Council.

When the council voted 4 to 1 last spring to spend that amount to build a sludge-burning incinerator at the wastewater treatment plant in Savage, the members made it clear that the vote would not be the end of the matter. Although the Department of Public Works had followed a consultant's recommendation in asking for the project, some council members felt that the alternatives had been given short shrift, and they set out to study the issue themselves.

Now, after more than 25 hours of field trips, during which the council and County Executive Elizabeth Bobo donned hard hats at a composting plant in Baltimore, work boots at a Carroll County farm, and face masks at a New Jersey incinerator, the verdict is all but in. Three of the five council members interviewed this week said they are unprepared to fund construction next year on an incinerator to dispose of the solid waste that is left after wastewater is cleaned.

But wait, don't turn the page. Although the topic of sludge -- essentially the solid waste from sewers -- tends to make most noses wrinkle and eyes glaze over, there are reasons to care about what happens after the toilet flushes. After all, the disposal process costs money, and James Irvin, public works director in Howard, said that whatever method of disposal the council chooses will likely show up as an increase in consumers' water bills.

Sludge disposal is, by definition, a subject fraught with problems. There is simply no such thing as a perfect way to get rid of it. "No system is 100 percent without risk or 100 percent desirable," said John Walker, an analyst at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "There's always a tradeoff."

Incineration is expensive -- revised cost estimates put the project at over $11 million -- and poses a potential environmental hazard, according to environmentalists. Composting, a process whereby sludge is mixed with a filler and broken down into fertilizer, smells bad and would require building a facility somewhere other than the exisiting treatment plant. Land spreading, the process now in use here, is becoming "a logistical nightmare" as farmland disappears and state regulations become more stringent, Irvin said.

The decision also may have lasting reverberations on other waste disposal issues. Council members Shane Pendergrass, in whose district the proposed incinerator would be built, and C. Vernon Gray said their experiences in researching sludge have convinced them that the county ought to have a recycling program for beverage containers and newspapers to prolong the life of its landfill.

"If you've ever had a toilet stopped up and knew you couldn't flush, that's a very small, but personal experience of what would happen if we didn't have a place to put our sludge," Pendergrass said. "If you can't dispose of your waste, you can't build, you can't grow. That's what has determined the growth rate in this county -- water and sewer."

Pendergrass and council member Angela Beltram met last week with the county executive to inform Bobo of their position. They said the county ought to commit itself to land spreading, which until now has been used as an interim measure, with an eye toward building a composting plant sometime in the future.

"Most of the people you talk to who don't have an ax to grind, who aren't selling compost or building incinerators, think that low-key, low-tech, put-the-sludge-back composting is the way to go," Pendergrass said.

Bobo, who said she will consider the council's input when preparing her next budget, has not yet made a decision on whether to include the incinerator or some other capital project in her request. If she does opt for an incinerator over the council members' objections, they could delete the item from their budget. They would not, however, have the authority to apply such funds toward some other method.

"It's my hope that it won't come to that," Pendergrass said.

The plan to burn Howard's sludge surfaced a year ago, after a consultant who had been paid $400,000 to study operations at the Little Patuxent Wastewater Treatment Plant concluded that the incinerator best met the long-term needs of a physically small, but rapidly urbanizing county.

The main argument in favor of that option, which is still preferred by officials at the Department of Public Works, is based on the idea that within 10 years, as the western portion of the county is developed, officials would not be able to find enough farms on which to continue spreading sludge. Even if enough land existed in terms of acreage, the thinking went, homeowners who have paid as much as $1 million to live in the rural areas would surely object to the process in their neighborhoods. One advantage of the incinerator option is that the county already has a three-acre site at the treatment plant.

Another factor in the decision is the amount of sludge produced here. Ironically, Howard's relatively small volume of sludge, has made it difficult for the county to compete for sites with large producers such as Montgomery County, which pays a contractor to spread almost all its sludge on farms in Howard and Carroll. With so little sludge, it takes longer to fill up a particular site. Because land spread with sludge has to be taken out of production, farmers are more likely to go with someone who can finish the work quickly, Irvin said.

Farmers now volunteer to have their land spread by the county, while they are paid by contractors. If the county wanted to pay for the land in order to compete for sites more effectively, farmers would have to submit to the county's strict bidding process, something Irvin believes they would be hesitant to do.

"I'm really hurting for sites," Irvin said. "We're spreading 50 percent of our sludge at the landfill now, and I don't have any new farm sites lined up."

But according to Beltram and Pendergrass, the public works department until recently has not devoted the kind of in-depth study and long-term commitment to land spreading that it did to incineration. They point out that the contractor who works for Montgomery County told them he had never been approached by Howard County and believes that enough land exists to solve the county's needs for the forseeable future.

"We don't know the future. As far as incineration is concerned, there is the problem that the fuel might not be available," Beltram said. "If we have the land now, we should be using it. We don't know the technology of the future, so why should we rush into building an incinerator if we don't need it?"

Both council members said they were particularly concerned about the cost of the incinerator. In addition to the $11 million building costs, the incinerator would require about $550,000 annually to operate. Because Howard's sludge is wetter than that in other areas, the operating costs might actually be higher because of increased fuel costs.

The county now spends about $380,000 a year to treat and spread its sludge. If land spreading were selected as the disposal method of the future, officials would have to build several storage facilities. Irvin said the operating costs could rise to $1 million annually if the county decided to hire a contractor to do the work now performed by the public works department.

"I think they looked at the site and said, 'we have three acres left, what can we do with it,' " Pendergrass said. "If your only constraint is availability of land, if money is not an issue, if oil dependency is not an issue, if air quaility is not an issue, then, of course, incineration seems like the way to go."

The issue of sludge disposal also has been controversial in neighboring counties. In addition to the sludge it spreads in Howard, Montgomery County has a composting facility that has been the subject of lawsuits by residents complaining of odors. Howard officials say that if they build a composting plant, it would be an enclosed facility using state-of-the-art odor-reducing technology.

Prince George's County composts some of its sludge in Montgomery County and burns the rest at one of its two treatment plants. Anne Arundel County has two incinerators, neither of which is working at its full capacity, and is also involved in land-spreading.