Some questions at the end of the pipeline

March 28, 1996|By PETER JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE -- Editors of community papers have nose trouble. They hate the idea that something might be going on in their town that they don't know about. I'm not an editor anymore, but the old nosy impulses are still there.

So when men with heavy equipment started digging up Congress Avenue near my office and burying what looked like an eight-inch pipe there, I was immediately curious. And when I saw that the pipe was being extended from the foot of Congress, which ends at the waterfront, out to the middle of the Susquehanna River, I was more curious still.

Odd discharge

The workmen seemed unusually tight-lipped about the project, but local people said they'd heard it was for some kind of a discharge. That was odd. I remember only too well when Havre de Grace used to discharge all its municipal wastes directly into the river, but I had thought those days were gone forever.

I called a few newspaper people and environmental watchdog organizations to see if they knew what was going on, but they didn't. Some of them said it all sounded alarming, but none of them had time to investigate. I did, though, and with very little difficulty I soon collected some basic facts.

There is a divergence of opinion in this community about what the facts show, and not everyone who reads about them here will draw the same conclusions about the merits or demerits of the pipeline project. But just about everyone can appreciate the technical and ethical complexity of the issue, and understand the challenge it presented to those who had to make important decisions about it.

The pipeline, which has been duly approved by state and local officials, is being built by the J.M. Huber Corp., a large New Jersey-based firm that has operated a plant in Havre de Grace since 1951. The plant manufactures specialized chemicals used for such things as providing the abrasive in toothpaste.

Huber is a major employer in Havre de Grace, with about 150 people earning a total of about $8 million a year. It is not known as a major polluter, and has been supportive of local civic and environmental causes. Not long ago it gave a major gift to The Nature Conservancy.

Currently, a byproduct of the Huber operations here is a non-toxic 5-percent solution of sodium sulfate. The solution runs through an evaporator which removes the water, and the powder that is left is sold for various industrial purposes, including use as filler in powdered laundry detergent.

Now business has increased, and the company foresees the need to dispose of much more sodium sulfate solution -- as much as 200,000 gallons a day. A new evaporator would cost $15 million, and there's no room at the plant site for it anyway. The city's sewage-treatment plant could in theory handle the discharge, but at current gallonage rates the charges to Huber would exceed $5,000 a day.

In order to remain competitive, Huber explained last year in a report to the Maryland Department of the Environment, it must find another way to dispose of the solution. It asked permission to build a pipeline to the Susquehanna for that purpose.

Questions raised

Aside from any aesthetic or theoretical concerns, the proposal raises two fairly specific questions. First, would it affect human health, especially the health of those in this community and others nearby whose drinking water comes from the Susquehanna? And second, would it affect aquatic life?

Perhaps not surprisingly, a consulting firm retained by Huber concluded that no serious risk to either human health or aquatic life existed. Under certain conditions when the level of the river is very low, it conceded, the amount of sodium in local drinking water could rise slightly -- just as it has in the past during dry summers when salt water moves farther up the Chesapeake estuary.

There are no federal standards for the permissible amount of sodium in drinking water, and there is little scientific agreement about what they should say if there were. So the mayor and city council of Havre de Grace, and the people at Maryland's Department of the Environment, had to make what was really an informed guess.

They approved the proposal, in the case of the city council with only one member voting no. Obviously they've taken some heat for their decision, and there are those -- especially newcomers and retired people -- who think they sold out to industry at the expense of the environment. Many others see no real risk, and think the officials acted bravely to protect jobs.

Even after the sodium sulfate solution starts running into the river, it's unlikely there will be any way to tell any time soon who was right. The questions will remain unanswered, which is why this faintly ominous little story is worth including in the annals of modern life.

Peter Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 3/28/96

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