Testing Water Quality Near a Public Landfill

Part of the Young Naturalist Awards Curriculum Collection.

by Alexander, Grade 7, Maryland - 2012 YNA Winner

Introduction and Hypothesis

I live only a mile and a half from the Sandy Hill landfill. The landfill has been closed almost my whole life, but I know it is there because sometimes I can smell it when we drive near it. When we walk in the woods, I have seen metal posts that are numbered “PG-##” and are titled “groundwater well” (see Figures 1 and 2). My parents told me that these are to test the water to see if it is safe. They told me not to worry; since we do not have a well, our water is O.K. My mother has a garden, and I wondered if the landfill would contaminate the vegetables she grows. I wondered what kinds of chemicals could be leaking into the woods around the landfill, and if the animals got poisoned by drinking out of the streams and puddles. I read about the different elements that might be in the water, and the elements that can be harmful to humans such as arsenic, barium (Ba), cadmium (Cd), chromium (Cr), lead (Pb), and mercury (Hg). These elements have been linked to lung cancer and liver, brain, kidney and heart damage. When I did some research, I found that the State of Maryland has not conducted a new study on the landfill since April 2008. 

Figures 1 and 2: Groundwater well post

The objective of my project is to determine whether landfill runoff from the Sandy Hill landfill leaches into the water in my woods. I planned to test for dangerous chemicals that the dump may not have contained well. If these chemicals were consumed, would it be safe to consume them? The landfill dump has been shut down since June 2000, but chemicals could still be lingering in the groundwater.

My hypothesis is: If and when I take water samples at various distances from the dump, then the results will find contaminants in those water samples.

Map of the Landfill
Figure 3: Map of the landfill and the surrounding area

The Sandy Hill Landfill is located in Bowie, Maryland, which is in Prince George’s County; it is approximately one and a half miles from my house. The landfill accepted about 5.2 million tons of trash from the day it opened to when it closed in 2000. This landfill is required by the government to use liners to protect against leachate. Below is a picture of the area around the landfill, with markers showing where I took the samples. Sample 4 is right near my house.

Initially, my assistant (my dad) and I collected four soil samples. I chose the sample locations based on different distances from the landfill. I researched how to test the samples and ran across some information from the U.S. Geological Survey (U.S.G.S). After we had already collected four soil samples, my dad and I contacted James Landmeyer from the U.S.G.S. and told him of our study. He stated that soil samples would be good, but they are stagnant in nature and would not identify the movement of the chemicals from the landfill as clearly as water would. Within the study area, there are several underground water sources. I decided to abandon the soil samples and collect water samples instead. 

Collecting the Water Samples

Figure 4: Attempting to obtain a water sample using the pipe method

On November 27, 2011, my assistant and I collected four water samples near the original collection sites. Our supplies consisted of four plastic water bottles, a GPS, a marker and a PVC pipe. This time, the sites were chosen for the probability of collecting underground sources of water feed. I set out of our house and into the woods to get the samples and walked toward the first sample spot. At first we tried to drive the PVC pipe into the ground to take water from the ground, on the advice of the U.S.G.S. This method was not successful. I could not get the water to come up through the pipe. I did not want to try to suck the water up based on my theory that the water was contaminated. I decided to take samples from the groundwater using plastic bottles.

Sample W1 was from a stagnant puddle located near the back gate of the landfill. We had observed this puddle to be consistent over several years and even in drought conditions; for this reason, I believe this puddle is fed by an underground source. I took a water bottle and filled it with the water from the first puddle and labeled it W1. This process was repeated for W2, W3, and W4. Pictures were taken at each site, and the GPS coordinates were recorded as well.

Figure 5: Obtaining a water sample

Sample W2 was collected where two streams meet. The source for these streams is an underground source. Sample W3 was collected from a puddle northwest from my home. I have also observed this puddle to be consistent over several years and even in drought conditions. For this reason, I believe this puddle is fed by an underground source. The final sample, W4, was taken from the sump-pump well in the basement of my home. My house is located in a high-water-table area, and we receive water from the ground. 

For each sample, one liter of water was collected. This amount was required by the testing agency. The testing agency used was Spectrum Analytic in Ohio. Per recommendations from James Landmeyer, we asked for a connectivity analysis and had the water tested for sodium chloride and trace elements. My hope was to compare the level of elements to previous studies conducted by the U.S.G.S. and Prince George’s County. This testing can be very expensive, so I had to limit the elements to a smaller set. The results in the following PDF list the elements and levels in parts per million (ppm). The electrical connectivity was measured in mmho/cm.

Discussion of Data and Conclusion

Below is a chart that shows the results of the samples side by side with the acceptable levels.

Element Water Sample 1 Water Sample 2 Water Sample 3 Water Sample 4 Maximum
Acceptable Levels
pH 7 5.8 5.6 7.9 6.5-8.5
Magnesium 1.1 0.3 0.3 0.3 20-30
Calcium 26 3.4 4.4 48 40-80
Iron 9.8 1.1 2.6 0.2 0.3
Manganese 0.8 0.1 0.1 <.01 0.05
Nitrate-N 0.5 0.5 0.1 .05 10
Sodium 1.6 7.2 11 2.4 20 mg
Chloride 0.3 0.6 0.6 0.1 250
Sulfate-S 0.1 <.01 0 0 250
EC .19mmho/cm .08mmho/cm .1mmho/cm .24mmho/cm .75
122 51 64 154 500
Figure 7: Close-up on GPS coordinates

For the elements tested, most of the results were within safe guidelines for irrigation water. It is clear that the sample taken outside the landfill is more contaminated than the three taken farther away from the landfill. Three of the samples exhibited high levels of the metals iron and manganese. These levels exceed the guide standards. Sample W1, closest to the landfill, showed the highest levels of these metals. I also compared my results to the tests done in 2008. The chart with those results is attached. The chart shows the results from soil tests done in two nearby parks.

What Further Research Could Be Done

Figure 8: Recording what was done to take the samples

Since this study yielded some out-of-tolerance levels for the elements tested, I plan to conduct a Phase 2 study. During my research for this project, I discovered that high levels of arsenic have been found around the landfill. This was in evidence in the attached studies referenced. I also learned that Huntington Park, across from the landfill, was closed temporarily after arsenic was discovered there. I asked the testing agency to test for arsenic, but unfortunately they did not. The follow-up test I plan to conduct will specifically test for arsenic as well as some other elements that are harmful to humans such as barium (Ba), cadmium (Cd), chromium (Cr), lead (Pb), and mercury (Hg). These elements have been linked to lung cancer and liver, brain, kidney and heart damage. Since the State of Maryland has not conducted a new study since April 2008, I strongly feel a follow-up independent study would be of benefit to the community.


Bicki, Thomas, and Michael Hirschi. “Safe Drinking Water.” Land and Water 17. Retrieved from the World Wide Web on 8 January 2012. http://web.aces.uiuc.edu/vista/pdf_pubs/SAFEWTR.PDF

Bigley, Dennis. Deputy Director, Department of Environmental Resources, Prince Georges County, MD. Interviewed by telephone by Alex and James Fletcher, October 2011.

Falls, Fred W., Andral W. Caldwell, Wladmir B. Guimaraes, W. Hagan Ratliff, John B. Wellborn, J.E. Landmeyer. 2011. Assessment of soil-gas, soil, and water contamination at the former 19th Street landfill, Fort Gordon, Georgia, 2009-2010. U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2011-1144. Available at http://pubs.usgs.gov/of/2011/1145/.

Landmeyer, James. Research hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, South Carolina Water Science Center, in Columbia, SC. Interviewed by telephone by Alex and James Fletcher, September 2011.

Sandy Hill Creative Disposal Project. Maryland Department of Environment, December 2008.  Retrieved from the World Wide Web on 7 January 2012. http://www.princegeorgescountymd.gov/DER/PDFs/SANDY%20HILL%20WEB%20UPDATE%2012-31-08.pdf

Summary of surface soil samples analysis, Prince Georges County.

Water sample test results: Spectrum Analytic, Washington, OH, December 2011.