Harford residents want sludge drying stopped

September 22, 1992|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Staff Writer

Saying recent well tests revealed potentially hazardous amounts of aluminum in their drinking water, a group of northern Harford County residents is asking the state to halt work at a private sludge-drying operation.

Backing up the request, Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann said the operation, Chesapeake Resource Reclamation Center, should be forbidden to accept any more "alum sludge" until more is known about the potential threat and until ground water flows in the region are investigated further.

Chesapeake is the only private "alum" sludge-drying operation in Maryland. The sludge is a common waste product generated when municipal water-treatment plants use an aluminum compound to remove solids from untreated water. In Maryland, most of the material is dried at treatment plants or discharged into sanitary sewer systems.

Based on the information presented at an Aug. 25 hearing on the sludge operation, the executive said the department had not collected a "reliable and comprehensive set of data" on the potential threat of aluminum in drinking water.

"We ought to be very clear about what we are doing to the public health," Mrs. Rehrmann said.

Herbert H. Martello, a Whiteford resident and organizer of the Mason-Dixon Safe Water Awareness Team, said the group had hired a consultant to analyze private wells serving about two dozen families living around the sludge-drying operation.

He said samples from nine wells within two miles of the operation indicate the aluminum concentrations in ground water are higher in wells close to the site. From the samples analyzed, he said, aluminum concentrations decrease as the distance from the sludge operation increases.

In May, his group filed suit in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, saying the sludge operation endangers public health. The case is pending.

The suit claims that medical research has linked aluminum to numerous ailments, including Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease and Lou Gehrig's disease.

The drying operation consists of unlined evaporation pits on 40 acres at Dooley Road and Route 165 in Whiteford. It has been operating under an interim state permit and has accepted about 8 million gallons of alum sludge over the past two years from treatment plants serving Reading and Mechanicsburg in Pennsylvania and the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford.

Concerns about the operation have prompted some residents to begin drinking bottled water. The concerns also have caused tension in the otherwise close-knit rural community around Whiteford, just south of the Pennsylvania border.

"I can't walk into the food store without people shunning me," said Farrell D. "Nick" Whiteford, who owns and operates the sludge site. Mr. Whiteford, a fourth-generation resident of the community and a director of the Forest Hill Bank, claims to be the largest employer in northern Harford.

He contends the aluminum residents fear has leached into their wells is naturally occurring -- not a contaminant from his operation.

Mr. Whiteford said he has not accepted sludge for several months, because most of his clients have been scared away by the controversy.

Asked how his agency is responding to the request from the residents and Mrs. Rehrmann, Michael Sullivan, spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment, said: "I don't want to get into a discussion over what is a moot point. They are not accepting" more sludge now.

"Nothing in front of us right now is raising a huge warning signal that there is an imminent problem there," added Mr. Sullivan, who said his agency's research indicates high levels of naturally occurring aluminum in the Whiteford area.

However, he said "the jury is apparently still out" on whether aluminum in drinking water poses significant health risks.

In a recent letter to the environment department, Mrs. Rehrmann said the agency had not responded adequately to the residents' concerns about aluminum in their wells.

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