When Dorothy Rowland bought her Baltimore County horse farm 25 years ago, the Piney Run stream, which starts in Hampstead, was a tiny creek that people simply stepped over to cross.
Now, 15 years after Hampstead's sewage treatment plant began dumping about a half-million gallons of treated wastewater into the tiny stream each day, its banks have become nearly vertical from erosion, Ms. Rowland and other area property owners say.
Earth has been washed away from the banks, pulling trees into the water and pushing large rocks far downstream with the force of more water than the small stream -- which used to go dry sometimes -- can handle, they say.
Plans to increase that discharge into Baltimore County, from 500,000 gallons a day to the Hampstead plant's limit of 900,000, would only worsen the situation, property owners say.
"From a little series of spring heads, a massive water system was devised," Ms. Rowland said. She is a member of the Piney Run Preservation Association, which was formed in the 1960s to fight the plant's construction on Piney Run.
Members of the group, which comprises about 175 northern Baltimore County families, are contesting the permit for the increased discharge. An administrative hearing on the permit is scheduled for Wednesday at Green Spring Station Administrative Law Building in Lutherville.
Hampstead's permanent permit expired in 1993, and the plant is operating with a temporary permit and a capacity of 600,000 gallons a day.
If the administrative law judge approves the permit, the plant could begin operating at 900,000 gallons a day barring an appeal from the association.
"When we came to look at the property [in 1966], we just hopped over the stream -- we didn't even think about it," said Ms. Rowland, whose 10 1/2 -acre farm has been cut in half by the stream. "That's how small it was."
Now, the gorge that has been formed by the stream's erosion is so deep, she said, that it is impossible for the horses she breeds to cross to her property on the other side.
"It's no-man's land now," Ms. Rowland said.
She said several of her neighbors also have lost use of portions of their property because of the erosion.
Mrs. Rowland said the stream is carrying earth away so rapidly that banks have been carved out and have fallen into it within a matter of months, and the sides have become so steep that her neighbors can no longer can get their farm equipment across the stream to maintain their property.
"That used to be meadowland," she said. "Now, there's no way
to get in there and keep in mowed."
In papers filed by Piney Run Preservation's attorney, C. Victoria Woodward, who also lives along the stream, members argue that the Hampstead treatment plant probably shouldn't have been built there.
Piney Run -- which eventually flows into the Loch Raven Reservoir, which supplies water to Baltimore -- is classified by federal officials as an intermittent stream, one that occasionally runs dry in warm weather.
"The Piney Run . . . had a design capacity incapable of handling any point source or nonpoint source discharges, including sewage or storm water," the papers said.
After the Hampstead plant was built, however, the water flow became constant and eroded the banks. And the water became warmer and contaminated, harming wildlife such as the brown trout and endangered bog turtles in the area, the papers said.
Piney Run is classified by the state as a Use III-P stream, which means that it should be clean enough for human consumption and be able to support trout.
"The water is green," Ms. Rowland said. "At the edge of my property, I don't see fish or anything. Just bubbles."
Piney Run Preservation members think the bubbles could be from chemicals that are washed downstream after being used to treat Hampstead's wastewater.
"My dog, who's a liver-spotted color, swims in the stream," Ms. Rowland said. "His ears are now all bleached blond from what's in that water."
Carroll County officials say they do not know what the bubbles are. But they maintain that the Hampstead plant is being run in compliance with state and federal standards.
As for the fish, Catherine M. Rappe, chief of the county's Water Resources Bureau, said one brown trout recently was seen just downstream of the concrete channel that plant workers once used for chlorinating the water.
"The habitat is there just below the plant," Ms. Rappe said. "It doesn't seem to affect the ability of the fish to live."
Ms. Rappe said county officials are addressing the Piney Run group's concerns, including removing the concrete channel, which has been magnifying the sun's heat, resulting in hotter water in the stream.
Won't give up
Piney Run Preservation members -- including Ms. Woodward, who said she has received lukewarm responses from county officials during her presentations -- hope the corrections are made. But they stress that they want results and will file more litigation if they consider it necessary.
"We intend to pursue this to the extent that my clients continue to lose productive farmland and continue to suffer property damage," Ms. Woodward said. "We will continue to pursue this in whatever form necessary."