Well stirs debate

Torrent: Environmentalists are angry after the Maryland Department of Natural Resources agreed to allow a test well in Savage River State Forest in Garrett County.

January 05, 2000|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

PUZZLEY RUN -- Deep in a state forest near this Garrett County stream, a fluorescent pink ribbon marks the spot where local officials hope to find the water to supply a growing community and spur economic development in one of the poorest regions of Maryland.

But the ribbon is attached to a metal stake driven into the ground under a hemlock tree in a Sensitive Management Area in Savage River State Forest, where a state management plan prohibits "resource extraction."

Changes in that plan require public comment, yet the state Department of Natural Resources has granted the nearby town of Grantsville permission to drill a test well on the site without asking for public opinion.

FOR THE RECORD - An article on Puzzley Run in yesterday's Maryland section gave an incorrect first name for the Grantsville town engineer. He is Harry E. Knight.
The Sun regrets the error.

The move has angered environmentalists, who argue that the area, one of the few that has escaped loggers' axes since the turn of the century, should not be disturbed and complain that the state didn't follow its rules in giving local officials the right to drive a bulldozer and a drilling rig down an abandoned logging road into the woods.

The action threatens "a highly significant ecosystem" and "undermines the integrity" of the public review system Maryland has established for its forests, Karen Fisher Bernstein, president of the Audubon Society of Maryland and D.C., wrote to DNR secretary Sarah J. Taylor-Rogers in November.

DNR has the right to allow an "exploratory project" without seeking public comment, says Gene Piotrowski, the department's director of resource planning.

"If they find high quality water, we begin a full blown review," he says. "There's going to be adequate public review if it gets to that point."

Grantsville residents, who would benefit from the well, and Garrett County officials are perplexed by the opposition to a project they believe is necessary to the future of their community.

"Water's a necessity," insists state Del. George C. Edwards, who lives in a brick rancher two blocks off U.S. 40, Grantsville's main road. "People need it to live. It's not like we're drilling for coal, or oil."

Dan Boone, who helped establish the management area when he worked in DNR's Heritage Division, says the county can find water elsewhere.

"This place was once `the Yellowstone of the East,' " says Boone, who works at the federal government's Patuxent Research Center in Laurel. "Bison and elk were here, and there's still a lot of neat stuff. It's not as if there aren't alternatives."

Ground water geologists have found other places for wells, but the water has a high iron content and the county would have to build an expensive treatment plant. The water from a Puzzley well, about four miles north of town, would need only chlorine to be suitable for public use.

With state help, the town and county "could put enough money together to bring water from Puzzley," says Edwards. "But we're not flush in money out here, unlike other areas of the state."

Economic difficulties

Garrett County, where much of the economy is based on the coal under its mountains and the timber on top of them, traditionally has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state and the lowest or second lowest average weekly paycheck, says Jim Hinebaugh, the county's economic development director.

Garrett officials have tried for years to attract small manufacturers and distributors to fledging industrial parks off Interstate 68, the highway built to spur economic development in Western Maryland. The Northern Garrett Industrial Park, a 100-acre tract at the Grantsville exit from I-68, has struggled for eight years, mostly because the local water system is inadequate.

"We've had prospective tenants choke on the lack of water," says Ray Knight, Grantsville's town engineer.

Worse, the existing water supply is inadequate for fire protection. G&P Gulf, one of the largest buildings in town, burned to the ground in June 1998 because firefighters ran out of water.

The concrete slab that formed the floor of the old garage and the roof of its basement are all that is left on the site on U.S. 40.

Since that fire, the town has drilled a new well on private property near Puzzley Run south of U.S. 40, which has helped. A second well within the natural area should solve their problem, officials say.

DNR granted the town the right to go on the property in 1998, but John R. Griffin, then DNR secretary, rescinded the agreement last April, ruling that it is "clearly inconsistent" with state management plans for the area.

Current Secretary Taylor-Rogers restored the town's right to go on the property in October, but tied strict precautions to it.

Well site 200 feet from creek

The well site is at the base of a hill some 3,000 feet off U.S. 40, down an abandoned logging road overgrown with hemlock and rhododendron and about 200 feet from Puzzley Run, a narrow stream that courses through a gap in the mountains to meet the Youghiogheny River.

The woods provide habitat for some threatened and endangered species, but none of them are in the "area that would be traversed," says Piotrowski.

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