People everywhere take their water for granted. To quench thirst, wash clothes or water lawns, one has only to turn on the tap. Doubts about quality never enter the minds of those who are supplied with "city water." The idea that poisons and carcinogens, such as lead cadmium, arsenic and chloroform, could be in the water is never a thought, much less that drinking such water could cause cancer, Hodgkin's disease, leukemia or birth defects. The residents of Mt. Zion and Laytonsville, whose homes are near the new Montgomery County landfill and who are dependent upon wells for their water supply, have these fears.
Just as residents of the city assume the water they are drinking is safe, so do the residents of Laytonsville/Mt. Zion assume the glass of water offered their children is free from toxic contaminants. We look to our local governments to guarantee safe water--as a basic right.
In this rural community reside God-fearing, law-abiding families. Historically, we have trusted our government. We work for a living. Our values emanate from our sense of family and neighborhood. Our PTA meetings are packed to overflowing; our 4-H groups are among the most active in the county. Our churches reflect our deep commitment to morality and justice. We have a sense of history. Mt. Zion is one of the oldest black communities in the state, and its small graveyard documents the passage from slavery to free landowners of present residents' ancestors. Laytonsville has served as an agricultural center since the turn of the century, with working farms surrounding the slow-paced village, unchanged as new neighborhoods dot the rolling countryside.
On Oct. 12, Montgomery County Executive Charles Gilchrist, with Council President Ruth Spector, Vice President Neal Potter, Jerome Leszkiewicz, director of the office of environmental construction, and state health official William Eichbaum, held a press conference to "allay the fears of citizens" that the newly constructed landfill, situated just inches above the plentiful ground water supply, will not poison their drinking water. Gilchrist assured reporters that the landfill will present no problems to the 100-square mile area of the county around Laytonsville/Mt. Zion.
Outside the press conference, unable to gain entry, were the men, women and children of the area, protesting in fear that their water will be poisoned. Some have been concerned throughout the four-year controversy; some have joined since the recent reports of well contamination on the landfill site--information that was withheld by the county for five months. All of them have read consultants' reports, have talked with government officials, have sincerely wanted to "have their fears allayed" by their government but now do not believe the government officials who are saying the landfill will be safe.
Why were they demonstrating, raising technical questions and reflecting a lack of confidence in the integrity of their government officials? The performances, past and present, of government have eroded the credibility of this threatening project:
1.Local, state and federal laws enacted to protect the public have been broken, deleted, changed or ignored. Flagrant abuses of the law in order to protect this project leave citizens suspicious and frightened that their government acts only to serve its own myopic purpose, with little or no interest in protecting those it represents.
2.Critical recommendations contrary to the proposed landfill design have consistently been withheld from the public and the county council that is responsible for appropriating funds for the project.
3.A citizens' advisory committee, established as a working liaison between the community and the county, was refused meetings once it asked to meet with the consultant and review the construction plans. The plans were eventually obtained only when a citizen signed up as a bidder.
4.The constant, repeated efforts of the county to withhold information, hold secret meetings and deny access to data have destroyed confidence in the project.
5.The apparent conflict of interest that has permeated the site selection and implementation of this project has prevented the government from effectively or objectively reviewing and evaluating the adequacy of the site and the design.
6.Important criteria established by the county and its consultants have been abandoned as it became apparent that adherence to those criteria would eliminate the site.
Evolving out of this battle is a fundamental question of government accountability. Our elected officials, charged with serving as guardians of our well-being, have lost sight of these responsibilities and goals. They would rather blindly protect their tenuous position on the issue than protect the health and safety of their constituents. They would rather open our ground water to pollutants than open their meeting and files to public review.
Can our fears be allayed by such political buffoonery?
We think not.