Residents hear of septic system

Many raise concerns about waste management for proposed high school

Residents register concerns on sewage treatment plan

Howard County

April 30, 2003|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

Neighbors concerned about the proposed location of Howard County's 12th high school heard last night that its septic system likely will improve drinking water quality in surrounding Marriottsville.

But it is what they did not hear at the waste management permit hearing that has them worried.

Left unanswered were questions about how the sewage disposal plans for the school -- temporarily dubbed Northern -- will affect the area's wetlands, streams, ecosystem, watershed, bacteria levels and chemical contaminants.

Also of concern to residents was what would happen if the treatment system fails to live up to its designers' promises and how neighbors of the school site, which is next to Mount View Middle School, where the meeting was held, will learn of any system shortcomings.

"In order for this permit to be issued, each of these issues should have been addressed," said Dave Fairchild, who lives nearby.

Fairchild said he was worried that nitrate levels in the water, shown to cause severe illness or even death in infants when excessive, might not adequately be controlled even though school system representatives said the plan for the high school's sewage disposal will follow the most stringent guidelines in the county.

"The new system will lead to much lower [nitrate] concentrations in ground water," said Frank Barranco, a hydrogeologist hired as an environmental consultant by the school system.

Barranco explained that the nearly silent and almost odorless system would allow only 8 milligrams or less of nitrate per liter. The safe limit for drinking water is 10 milligrams per liter.

Mount View Middle School also would receive the new, more stringent treatment, which should improve existing water quality in the area, he said.

"If the high school is not built, [the area] will be worse off than if the high school is built," one resident announced and left the meeting, apparently satisfied.

If Northern survives the more caustic critiques given during the hearing, which was sponsored by the Maryland Department of the Environment, the school can add the feat to a growing list.

The school was originally supposed to open next year, but was pushed to 2005 because of budget constraints and then to 2006 and tentatively back to 2005 again.

It has survived protests by residents concerned with the lot's smaller size, traffic impact and student safety, and even advanced after data showed that a conventional septic system would not work for the building, which is not served by public sewer facilities.

The school is needed to accommodate the expected 1,200 additional high school students that Howard is projected to have by 2005, and many of the Howard County parents stood before the MDE members painting a bleak picture of crowded schools.

"Do not let our children continue to suffer," said Angela Ballard-Landers, a parent.

But the only concern for the department is the feasibility of the school system's plan for disposing of sewage. Without a proper design, the department will not grant the necessary per- mit for creating a septic system, and the school cannot move forward.

Consultants for the school system installed nine wells around the perimeter of the proposed site to monitor waste water and propose a septic system, which in its final draft meets the 8-milligram nitrate limit that MDE required.

The plan was new to many in attendance.

"Adequate time has not been allowed for extensive review of this new system," said Susan Baker, who was at the hearing as a representative for Citizens for Adequate School Facilities. "I'd like to ask that the application process begin anew for this new system."

But further delay could be detrimental to the project, school board members and county politicians pointed out.

"My only plea is [that you] be as expeditious as possible," said state Sen. Robert H. Kittleman, a western county Republican. "If the final answer is yes, we need to know it and get on with it. If the final answer is no, we need to know even sooner because then we have to start all over again."

Residents have until 5 p.m. Tuesday to submit written testimony about the proposed permit to the Department of the Environment, which is to respond to concerns in June. Final determination on the permit can't happen before then.

"We're aware of the exigency or the need of the Howard County government in planning the school," said J. James Dieter, the administrator for MDE's wastewater permits program. "We will try to get a decision out as quickly as possible. But we do have the responsibility to adequately research and address [people's concerns]."

School board member Courtney Watson said the system needs an answer by June to get construction on track for a 2005 opening, and Sandra H. French, the board chairman, echoed her timeline concerns.

"If this does not work, then we truly have to go back to the drawing board," French said.

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