When Keith Ligon and scores of his neighbors moved to the Derwood section of Rockville, they didn’t mind that their new homes sat near a towering landfill. After all, county officials had pledged in the 1980s to convert the closed garbage dump into a giant park, with tennis and basketball courts, an archery range and other recreation facilities.
Nearly a quarter-century later, they are still waiting for that park. But now there is a more pressing concern: The landfill off East Gude Drive is leaking toxins.
In March, state and Montgomery County environmental officials finalized a study of the hazards associated with the trace amounts of harmful chemicals seeping into groundwater and the methane gas venting into the atmosphere.
The leakage does not pose an imminent health threat, said Peter Karasik, a manager at the county’s Department of Environmental Protection. Because people and wildlife do not come in contact with the contaminated groundwater, he said, any perceived risk is “more of an emotional and psychological burden.”
Still, neighbors are worried that the chemicals will harm the environment, and they have created a Web site that links to groundwater studies and gas-monitoring data from the site, just north of downtown Rockville.
The county, which has sunk hundreds of thousands of dollars into the old landfill, is considering spending an additional $412,000 to figure out how to clean it up. The county is “going to put together a remediation plan, and we intend to stay involved and keep on top of their efforts,” said Nick Radonic, one of Ligon’s neighbors.
The Gude [pronounced GOO-dee] landfill, the county’s oldest, opened in 1965. After accumulating enough garbage to fill more than 70 tractor-trailers, it shut down in 1982 and was covered with two feet of soil.
Now it resembles a rolling, verdant pasture, populated with deer and the occasional enthusiast flying electric airplanes. The only hints that it is a dormant landfill are the rows of pipes that vent the methane and the signs that prohibit smoking and open flames.
Shortly after the landfill closed, developers started to put up single-family houses nearby. Home buyers liked the neighborhood’s proximity to the Shady Grove Metro station, and the developers distributed county schematics that showed detailed plans for a park, residents said. There was room for a possible golf driving range to the north of the site and for an amphitheater and picnic area to the east.
The recreational fields were among the reasons Ligon, 55, decided to move there in 1990 with his wife and two children. “We didn’t see [the landfill] as a bad thing because it was dormant. . . and because of the commitment to build the park,” said Ligon, who chairs the Gude Landfill Concerned Citizens group.
But county officials and developers soon realized that redevelopment could not occur for years because ground-elevation tests showed that the property was sinking at a rate of one or two feet a year.
Then, in 2008, county officials announced that instead of a park they wanted to build a bus depot at the site. This did not sit well with the neighbors, who complained to the Montgomery County Council about the increased traffic and noise a bus depot would bring. They also requested information from the county and the state, and during their research, they obtained county reports of certain compounds such as vinyl chloride, a carcinogen, escaping from the trash and entering nearby groundwater.
Concerned about the environmental problems, County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) withdrew the plan for the bus depot, and he asked state environmental officials to check out the site.
Now, the county is drafting proposals to deal with the problem, including leaving the site fallow and placing a synthetic cap over the landfill to serve as a barrier between the garbage and the groundwater. Remediation could cost up to $30 million, according to county officials.
The county is expected to submit cleanup proposals to the state in about a year. Karasik said he expects the state to select a plan about three months later. Then the county can start remediation and make decisions about what to do with the land.
Meantime, the residents continue to stand by.
“This is one of those ‘watch and wait’ sort of things,” Ligon said.