2 counties in struggle on sewage

Wastewater plant leads to battle of affluent over effluent

`A sad situation'

Balto. County-Carroll dispute results in protracted legal fight

June 20, 1999|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,SUN STAFF

It's a rural version of an ungodly war centered on sewage, neighbors pitted against neighbors, with lawyers calling all the shots.

Nearly 30 years after the Hampstead Wastewater Treatment Plant opened, its legacy can be summed up as this: the affluent vs. the effluent.

Wealthy Baltimore County residents say dense development on Carroll County's side of the border threatens not only their preserved, pristine way of life but the source of drinking water for about 1.5 million Baltimore-area residents.

After years of bickering, resolution may soon be at hand.

A spate of lawsuits that dissect the plant's flow, water quality and discharge temperature is winding through circuit courts in Baltimore and Carroll counties and U.S. District Court. Pending appeals, court orders and costly fines under the federal Clean Water Act could soon change how the plant is run.

The two sides are expected to face off at a public hearing June 30 as Carroll officials forge ahead with a seven-year quest to increase the daily flow of treated sewage into Piney Run to 900,000 gallons, from the 500,000 gallons the state permit now allows.

"I think we have a sad situation where two counties have failed to get together and do a little regional planning," said T. Bryan McIntire, a Republican Baltimore County councilman who represents the wealthy valleys of northern Baltimore County. "Carroll's commissioners have decided to make Hampstead their high-density area, but when you cross the line into Baltimore County, it's like going into heaven."

Two Carroll County officials who oversee the county-owned plant -- Wayne Lewns, Bureau of Utilities chief, and Gary Horst, Department of Enterprise Services and Recreation director -- declined to comment on specifics of the dispute, citing the pending lawsuits.

In the middle of the battle is the small plant, on a quiet cul-de-sac off busy Route 30. As numerous concrete pits treated and churned effluent for the town of about 4,200 residents last week, Superintendent Ron Ireland defended the operation -- and warned about the potential cost to Hampstead's users.

"The people up here, the users, don't have a clue how much this will cost them," Ireland said. "I think they ought to stick it in their bills, and maybe they can turn out to protest or something. From a taxpayer's point of view, what is happening here is bad."

Last month, U.S. District Judge Joseph H. Young ruled in favor of a group of Baltimore County residents who said the effluent from the Hampstead plant violated the federal Clean Water Act.

Using Carroll County's own temperature data, the residents argued that Carroll violated the federal mandate on 183 days by releasing hot effluent from the plant into the headwaters of Piney Run, endangering trout in the stream.

A hearing on fines that could run as high as $4.5 million is set for November -- but Linda S. Woolf, an attorney hired by Carroll, said last week that the county is asking the court to reconsider its ruling.

Trial set Sept. 15

In a separate action last summer, the state Court of Special Appeals nullified an attempt by Carroll to increase the plant's allowed daily flow from 500,000 to 900,000 gallons after the court faulted the Maryland Department of the Environment for failing to consider water temperature in granting a permit modification for the increase.

The lawsuit -- which seeks an injunction against increasing the amount of flow because of incomplete temperature testing -- is set for trial in Baltimore County Circuit Court on Sept. 15, even as the county and state officials attempt to revise the permit with strict temperature regulations.

The stricter permit guidelines are the subject of the Maryland Department of the Environment's June 30 hearing at the Butler Fire Hall on Falls Road.

Yet another Circuit Court lawsuit has been filed by downstream property owners in Baltimore County who are seeking damages for the harm they say storm water has caused.

Ireland said the temperature and amount of effluent discharged into Piney Run daily vary based on weather and usage. The stream, with headwaters behind a strip mall in Hampstead, flows into Western Run, part of the Gunpowder Falls watershed that is the source of drinking water for about 1.5 million metropolitan-Baltimore residents.

`Like Grand Central Station'

That potential harm to drinking water as well as the lawsuits have led to repeated testing at the plant by state, federal Environmental Protection Agency, Carroll, Baltimore County and city officials, Ireland said.

"Some days, it's like Grand Central Station out here," he said. "That stream is going to change radically if we reroute [the sewage discharge]. We meet drinking-water standards. We remove 96 to 99 percent of pollutants.

"In my opinion, we are diluting the pollutants in the stream."

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