Thirty citizens of Montgomery County, including a dozen chidren, barged into a closed-door meeting of officials last week and demanded to discuss a subject close to their hearts and homes -- the new county dump.
"This is something in my lifetime I never thought I'd have to do," said Laytonsville Mayor Charles T. White, a normally reserved insurance salesman acting, to his own amazement, like a '60s protester contemplating a sit-in.
"I'm in a meeting right now" Jerome J. Leszkiewicz, the county's environmental projects director, said courtly, "if you don't mind."
Under duress, Leszkiewica, agreed to schedule a meeting with White, subject to checking with the county attorney. A few hours later, the meeting was canceled.
On the subject of landfills, the citizens and their county barely talk to each other these days, except through lawyers. A citizens advisory committee stopped meeting 18 months ago, the citizens charging they could get no information, the county claiming what it did provide was winding up in legal briefs.
A decade of squabbling and, some say, squandering of $65 million in public funds has hardened the battle lines over what seems like a bottomless pit of controversy. Through it all, sites have been chosen and abandoned, the unwanted trash buffeted up and down the county by the political winds and rejected by neighboring states once destined to get it by rail. Along with the sites, consultants and contractors have come and gone.
Amid all the conflict, the opposing parties seem to agree on but one thing: The county's nearly 600,000 residents generate some 1,300 tons of trash each day, and something must be done with it. The long-term solution, a $150 million "resource recovery center" capable of turning garbage into electricity, is years away. The short-term answer is a new dump, to replace the hill of waste in Rockville that is sometimes called "Mount Trashmore."
Despite the efforts of officials to rename the county dump a "sanitary landfill," nobody, it seems, wants to live near one -- not the rich, not the poor, not country folk nor suburban burghers. So, despite an array of environmental edicts from state and federal authorities, the battle rages on even as construction proceedsw on the last location selected -- but never accepted by its neighbors.
An alliance of old-line whites, indigenous descendants of black slaves and suburban housewives turned activists, they have cried conspiracy, coverup and conflict-of-interest. They have gone to court to stop the dump, and failed. They have tried the referendum route, winning the voter's support for a charter amendment barring the county from running a landfill on land zoned for homes -- so far also to no avail. And last week, they picketed the County Council in an event staged for maximum media attention they did not get.
Challenging the county's experts, they have hired their own with money raised at art auctions and, armed with freedom-of-information requests, ferreted through county files in search of evidence to support their case.
Their concerns, they contend -- sometimes in technical jargon that has become a second language -- are far from parochial. Without additional safeguards the county has rejected, they say, chemicals could seep from the landfill into wells and streams that will posion not only their water but also the drinking supply of a million metropolitan residents serviced by two major reservoirs.
Already, two test wells at the landfill have been contaminated with oil and grease, coming, they believe, from fuel tanks stored at the site by contractors. The county disagrees, but, whatever the source, the people see the pollution as a harbinger of bad things to come.
They base their fears, in part, on reports of consultants hired by the county but whose recommendations and conclusions officials ultimately rejected. These consultants urged that a layer of clay line the bottom of the pit, to keep the chemicals away from the water supply below. The county has answers, but none satisfy the skeptics.
"We are absolutely certain from an environmental point of view this is a safe project," says County Executive Charles Gilchirst. As for the consultants who felt otherwise, he sys, "I'm not accusing anyone of dishonor, but in any such process, questions are raised and resolved. People can differ on decisions made, but in some particular cases, where there were contract disputes, it may have been more than pure intellectual debate."
Gilchrist, who inherited the dump dilemma with his 1978 election victory, is accused merely of deception and betrayal by former up-county supporters who oppose the Laytonsville landfill. Leszkiewicz, the county project director who formerly worked for the firm that recommended the site, is viewed somewhat less kindly. "I do wear a black hat," he says.
The 550-acre site sits amidst the rolling countryside of north-central Montgomery, near the headwaters of the Hawlings River and a few miles west of the Patuxent, into which it flows. A grassy ridge built with earth from the tract surrounds the pit where, unless the opponents somehow succeed, trash will start going sometime next year.
It used to be a farm, owned for centuries by the Riggs family of Washington banking fame and in recent decades by the Letts who started the Safeway supermarkets. From 1938 until he was summarily evicted by the county in May 1979, it was farmed by tenant Austin Geisbert. "The told me to get the hell off," is the way he recalls it.
Although his son stayed on for a year as caretaker, Geisbert says, he could not return. "Every time I went over I got sick." Today, the walls of his small frame house outside Laytonsville display photographs of the old farm, but Geisbert has given up the fight.
It is being carried on, in his name, by the likes of Priscilla Benner. She lives in a five-year-old subdivision of 30 homes, down a country road from the dump. It is one of several small developments to encroach on the countryside in recent years. The residents are professionals, well-educated in the ways of the bureaucracy which some of them serve. The wives work or juggle carpools with civic commitments.
Since coming from California, Priscilla Benner's life has been a succession of meetings and protests. One recent afternoon, her kitchen looked like the war room of a military command post, with charts and reports and maps scattered and stacked. Like a seasoned tropper in the environmental wars, she speaks an arcane tongue. Words like "berm" and "biota" and "leachate."
"Liquor is nothing compared to this," she says, referring to the controversy over the county department of liquor control. "It is incredible." cConsider, she says, the following:
Dames & Moore, the firm the county hired for $1.9 million to select a site, was under continuous "pressure" from officials to meet state imposed deadlines that were later postponed. "Delays and obstacles" the firm was urged to overcome, then consultant Leszkiewicz wrote, included "citizen opposition." Underscoring the sense of urgency, one company official urged his employes to act like marines seizing an objective.
In this hurried atmosphere, the concerns of a firm hired to study community impacts were brushed aside. The firm said it was placed under "extreme pressure" to "sanitize [its] reports," according to documents filed in a contract dispute later resolved in the firm's favor.
Dames & Moore and the county also rejected the recommendations of a Rutgers University environmental scientist and a major engineering firm of ways to prevent chemicals from reaching the water tables below the dump. Both urged the placing of a liner and the collection and procesing of contaminated liquids. The engineering firm was fired. It has since asked to be released from any liability over the project.
A key element if the proximity of the water table to the pit, no more than one foot in places. Consultants also noted the presence of rock fractures and a possible fault along which contaminated liquids could flow into streams. The county has dismissed such a scenario as highly unlikely.
The County Council earlier this year streamlined local landfill rules after members were told they were approving no more than a routine revision. They then discovered they had deleted 11 requirements protecting, among other things, the water supply. When they tried to reverse themselves, council members were told it was too late.
And then thre are the birds. yscavengers, by the thousands, descending on the garbage pit for regular feedings, flying, if worse comes to worst, into the engines of aircraft bound for or leaving nearby landing strips, bringing death and disaster to quiet lanes. The county promises to minimize the problem by covering the trash every two hours with dirt. Opponents remain unconvinced.
"Every solution is challenged from one point of view or another," said Leszkiewicz, dismissing the complaints as self-serving. "Many [Montgomery] residents in their professional lives are regulators. What you have is the ability of a well-educated community to muster arguments that make it very [difficult] for local government to do anything."
In the long run, however, the critics caution, county leaders would do well to take their advice. The county has already agreed to extend water mains to the affected area if wells are contaminated, at a cost upwards of $5 millon but much more if the threat is as widespread as the people say.
And then there is the matter of the graves. County-hired archeologists unearthed the graves on the old Riggs farm and had the remains removed to Rockville. If you believe Austin Geisbert, there could be hell to pay.
"When I moved there, they told me don't every plow it," the old farmer said. "They always told me anybody who disturbed the graveyard would go broke, and I'm waiting for that outfit and Montgomery County to go broke."