Court to hear pollution appeal

Federal judge ordered payment of $400,000 for plant discharge

Carroll County

April 05, 2001|By Brenda J. Buote | Brenda J. Buote,SUN STAFF

In a case that has drawn national attention, a federal appeals court will hear today Carroll County's appeal of a $400,000 fine it was ordered to pay last year for polluting Piney Run, a stream that flows from Hampstead into Baltimore County.

A group of Baltimore County landowners sparked a border dispute three years ago when it filed a lawsuit against Carroll County, alleging effluent discharged by Hampstead Wastewater Treatment Plant was heating the stream and killing fish in violation of the federal Clean Water Act.

The case - the first to fault a treatment plant for discharging heat, or thermal pollution - will be heard in the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va. It has attracted attention from across the country. Treatment plant lobbyists and several corporations, including Bethlehem Steel, have filed briefs to the court in support of Carroll County.

"Many of the greatest polluters in the country have joined this case," said G. Macy Nelson, lawyer for the Piney Run Preservation Association, the group that filed the lawsuit. "They, too, want to be able to discharge whatever they want with impunity. I say that's just industry hogwash. We believe this is a very narrow issue that's only relevant to Carroll County."

In February last year, Senior U.S. District Judge Joseph H. Young ordered Carroll County to pay a $400,000 fine for releasing hot effluent from the plant into the headwaters of Piney Run. The county also was ordered to pay the group's attorney fees and was barred from releasing effluent that is more than 68 degrees Fahrenheit.

Linda S. Woolf, the Baltimore attorney who is representing Carroll County, could not be reached for comment yesterday. County Attorney Laurell Taylor did not return calls to her office.

The central issue in the case is whether Carroll County is responsible for heat discharged by the treatment plant, and whether that heat is harming fish in the stream.

"Under the Clean Water Act, you cannot discharge anything without a permit that says you can," Nelson said. "We argue they can't discharge any pollution that's not on their permit."

The Hampstead treatment plant's discharge permit, issued by the Maryland Department of the Environment, makes no mention of heat.

Woolf has said the treatment plant is "without dispute, in compliance with its permit." The preservation association says the discharge of effluent in excess of 68 degrees Fahrenheit threatens trout and the water supply for 1.5 million people in Baltimore County. But county officials say the effluent is not harming the stream, and that it is in compliance with the law.

In September, state officials concluded that the wastewater treatment plant in Hampstead had not harmed fish in Piney Run.

Piney Run "supports wild brown trout and an assemblage of stream fish that are generally representative of trout streams in Maryland," Charles R. Gougeon, regional fisheries manager, wrote in a four-page report. "It is our opinion that the brown trout population in Piney Run is self-sustaining and very healthy."

Lawyers for both sides will have 30 minutes each to present oral arguments today. The Court of Appeals can reverse the U.S. District Court's decision, affirm it, or remand the case to a lower court. A ruling is not expected sooner than 45 to 90 days after the arguments.

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