U.S. appeals court voids fine for Hampstead waste plant

Environmentalists lose round in dispute over Piney Run

Supreme Court appeal possible

October 11, 2001|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

In a case closely watched by environmentalists, a federal appeals court reversed a U.S. District Court judge yesterday and ruled that Carroll County does not have to pay a $400,000 fine imposed by the judge for its discharges into Piney Run.

A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the effluent from Carroll's Hampstead Wastewater Treatment Plant does not violate the Clean Water Act and that the county is not liable for the fine imposed by Senior U.S. District Court Judge Joseph H. Young last year.

"I think it's a terrific decision," said Linda Woolf, the lawyer who represented Carroll in the case.

But the lawyer for the Piney Run Preservation Association, the environmental group that had filed suit against the county, pledged to try to reverse the ruling published yesterday.

"I think the 4th Circuit is wrong, and we'll pursue all possible remedies to try to get a review of the decision," said G. Macy Nelson, the association's lawyer.

He said the group could ask for the federal appeals court to review the ruling or seek an appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court.

"We tried a good case, Judge Young wrote a good decision, and we think he was right and the appeals court is wrong," Nelson said.

The association filed suit against Carroll County in 1998, alleging the county was violating federal and state environmental statutes because it was discharging water that was too warm from the Hampstead plant.

The association used Carroll County data to show that effluent from the plant -- which began operating in 1975 -- was increasing temperatures above the county limit of 68 degrees in the stream.

Association officials said the overheated discharges were threatening the stream's brown trout population -- a bellwether species.

They said the discharges also were a threat to the quality of water in a stream that feeds into the Loch Raven Reservoir, which supplies drinking water for the Baltimore area.

Young agreed, ruling Feb. 10, 2000, that the plant violated the Clean Water Act by releasing effluent warmer than allowed in the state-approved discharge permit.

But the appeals court, which heard arguments April 5, ruled that the discharges were within the "reasonable contemplation" of Maryland Department of the Environment officials when they issued the most recent permit in 1990.

The plant has sparked a bitter battle between Carroll County officials, who need to serve the growing Hampstead corridor with water and sewer service, and Baltimore County residents who live in the rural communities just east of the plant.

Woolf said 18 municipalities and agencies that operate water and sewer treatment plants had agreed to support Carroll in its legal arguments, signing on as appellants in the suit because of concerns about similar suits being filed by environmental groups.

"The concern was that they could have been operating within the parameters of their permits and still been hauled into court," Woolf said.

Woolf said that Piney Run -- it's name changes to Western Run when it enters Baltimore County -- is not threatened by discharges from the plant.

She said a state Department of Natural Resources report issued in August 2000 showed that numbers of brown trout in the stream had increased "exponentially" in recent years.

"Carroll County should be getting letters of gratitude and awards from environmental groups, rather than having to go to court," she said.

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