Spill threat to city water

Dell's farm leaked manure into streams supplying Westminster

No contamination found

Commissioner's family could be fined

state investigating incident

August 20, 1999|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN STAFF

State environmental officials are investigating a spill of 8,000 gallons of cow manure from Carroll County Commissioner Donald I. Dell's family dairy farm into streams that provide water to Westminster residents.

The city's water supply was not contaminated, Westminster officials said. But it was a close call for the city, which has limited water resources because of the drought.

The Dells could face fines up to $10,000, state officials said.

The spill occurred the afternoon of Aug. 10, when an outflow pipe from the farm's manure pit was accidentally diverted into nearby tributaries of Cranberry Branch, a primary water source for 27,000 people, state environmental officials said.

Farm employees had left the pipe, part of a machine that stirs the manure pit, unattended, officials said.

When the problem was discovered at the Sullivan Road farm, the employees stopped the outflow, tried to contain the spill with straw bales and called Westminster emergency officials.

Some manure was diverted back to the pit with pumps. The rest flowed into Cranberry Branch.

"An undetermined amount of manure did get into the water downstream," said John S. Verrico, a Maryland Department of the Environment spokesman.

As soon as Westminster leaders heard about the problem, water treatment plant operators stopped drawing water from Cranberry Branch.

"As of [Thursday], we've seen no impact in the water plant at all," said Thomas B. Beyard, director of Westminster's Department of Public Works.

If it had gone undetected, the spill could have contaminated Cranberry Branch, which is at its lowest level in years.

"Cranberry Branch is not at full-flow capacity. That's what caused me alarm," said Beyard. "The timing was bad."

Although the city's water treatment plant would make the contaminated water safe for drinking, it would not eliminate the odor, which would render it unusable. The city would have been forced to draw water from its depleted reservoir, which is at about 35 percent of capacity.

The impact on the stream itself appears to have been minimal. The day after the spill, Westminster water department officials discovered odors in two water samples taken downstream from the farm, but none since then, said Beyard.

State investigators reported finding a couple of dead minnows, but no evidence of a major fish kill.

Verrico said MDE officials are investigating the incident. On Aug. 12, state environmental officials issued the Dell family a formal complaint, giving it 10 days to provide a written explanation of the incident.

Dell, who was attending the Maryland Association of Counties annual summer convention in Ocean City yesterday, said he did not know what the consequences would be.

"It's their choice," he said. "They've been out a couple times to look the whole thing over and told us we'd done everything we can do" to clean up the spill.

Dell said the spill occurred when a pin that keeps the outflow pipe in place came loose, diverting the manure out of the pit. He said it was normal for the machine to operate unattended.

The Westminster water system has faced similar situations two or three times in the past eight years, Beyard said. In the 1970s, manure spills were common, he said, but Dell and other farmers in the watershed have made improvements to control agricultural pollution.

The Dell family has farmed in Carroll County for nine generations. Now in his third term as a county commissioner, Dell, 74, has handed over much of the day-to-day operation of his 400-acre farm to his sons, Roger and Greg.

Statewide, manure spills are relatively rare, Verrico said. This is the third one in four years in the state's western region, he said.

None of them compared to problems faced this summer in the Walkersville area of Frederick County. In June, the city's wells were fouled when a contractor blasting rock ruptured an underground sewage line, spilling nearly 900,000 gallons of untreated wastewater into the aquifer.

Sun staff writer Michael Dresser contributed to this article.

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