The fate of brown trout hooks development plans


May 30, 1999|By Mike Burns

THE QUIETLY snaking, grassy-banked meander of the Piney Run appears an unlikely candidate for an environmental controversy that's gone all the way to federal court.

But the free-flowing, clear-running stream that passes by Carroll County's sewage treatment plant in Hampstead into the old forests and rambling countryside of western Baltimore County, and eventually into the Gunpowder watershed, is the subject of a heated argument over water temperature -- specifically the level at which native brown trout can thrive.

This month, a federal judge ruled that the Carroll County plant had repeatedly violated federal law by discharging treated effluent that was too warm into Piney Run. Fines that could reach $4.5 million are to be imposed in November.

The successful suit was brought by a group of Baltimore County landowners, the Piney Run Preservation Association, who have so far prevailed in blocking the increased discharge of the Hampstead waste treatment plant into the stream.

Another court hearing is coming upon the group's objection to a state permit increasing plant discharge from 500,000 gallons a day to 900,000 gallons.

The Maryland Department of the Environment issued the permit and supports Carroll County's plan to nearly double the amount of treated waste discharged into Piney Run.

State deficiencies

The department's deficient conduct is one reason Baltimore County residents have had success: It refused to take temperature readings in the stream to prove trout were not being harmed until so ordered by the courts. The department also failed to advertise a public hearing on the Hampstead plant's application to expand discharge.

The tale of the treatment plant's capacity and discharge temperature is a part of the various border disputes between the two counties, with their divergent visions for the area.

Carroll sees growth around the old established town of Hampstead as desirable. The sewage treatment plant is tucked in the relatively new subdivision, Robert's Field. It is, county officials can say, a good example of the Smart Growth anti-sprawl program so zealously enforced by the governor: promoting growth in existing municipal areas. It's one of the few areas of agreement on that program between the county and the governor.

But population growth means a need for more public facilities -- in this case, a larger wastewater treatment plant for the area.

And that is seen as a direct threat by downstream neighbors across the county line, who fear the impact of greater erosion and nutrient loading on Piney Run. In Baltimore County's plans, that verdant landscape is to remain free of major development: It got a $3 million state grant last year to help preserve its character.

The issue is, then, not just about water temperature and the level of (legally treated) waste in the stream, but about the future land use of this area. It's about how decisions of Carroll impact on places across the county line, and vice versa. The dispute over effects of the Hampstead plant has been brewing for three decades.

But the line has to be drawn somewhere, and the impact on the quality of legally protected trout streams is often a good place to start in environmental challenges.

Various challenges have been mounted against operation of the Carroll treatment plant by Baltimore County residents and officials.

And Carroll has taken several steps to improve the quality of its discharge, including installing a zigzag streambed discharge course and cascading steps that help to cool the effluent and slow its velocity, and a shade cover to cool plant treatment ponds.

Carroll has even proposed installing a refrigeration system at the plant to lower water discharge temperatures.

The state environmental agency argues that trout numbers are growing in the affected stretch of Piney Run, in spite of discharge temperatures higher than the limit of 68 degrees.

`Mine canaries' of streams

Maintaining trout-friendly waterways is important, not just for fishing opportunities but for overall water quality and purer drinking water. Trout are, in a sense, the "mine canaries" of the streams -- fish that can signal changes in the health of a tributary. Some will survive higher temperatures, adapting to change. But a temperature range of 65 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit is a legally accepted guide to assuring the quality of a trout stream.

With three lawsuits filed by the Piney Run residents group to limit the Hampstead plant operations, the issue is not going to float away. The county is adamant in plans to expand the capacity and not to move the treatment plant. Hampstead has more than 500 homes planned in anticipation of the plant expansion.

However, the potential federal fines offer a strong incentive for the county (and state) to resolve this matter for the good of the environment. Otherwise, Carroll will be on the hook for big money, just like a fat brown trout.

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Pub Date: 5/30/99

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