Options open on sewage facility

Officials to consider methods of disposal

`Go back to square one'

Residents criticize leaders on school plant

Carroll County

October 01, 2003|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

Carroll County officials said yesterday that it probably will take them until next year to investigate options for disposing of sewage from Francis Scott Key High School, where the county built an $800,000 sewage treatment plant that the state has never cleared for use.

County Attorney Kimberly Millender told the Carroll commissioners yesterday that to comply with an administrative law judge's ruling that denied the county an operating permit, the county would have to "go back to square one." The county will consider many options, from working out snags in its original plan to running a sewer line from the school to a treatment plant in nearby Union Bridge, Millender said.

"We'll do what we can to get you hard numbers, so you can make the appropriate analysis of the options," she told the commissioners. Millender and Public Works Director Douglas E. Myers predicted they would return to the commissioners with that information about Jan. 1.

"We're going to have to find a solution because we can't tell the kids to stop going to the bathroom," said Commissioner Dean L. Minnich.

The county hauls sewage from a holding tank at the school to a sewage treatment plant in Westminster at a cost of $330 a day. Construction on the plant was completed in 1998, but it has never been used because the county built it without a state permit and has been unable to secure permission to operate.

The Maryland Department of the Environment granted an operating permit last year, but residents who live near the school appealed the decision. Administrative Judge Nancy E. Paige blocked the permit, ruling in August that the county did not examine a sufficient range of options for processing the sewage.

Paige did not find specific fault with the county's plan to treat sewage at the school and then pump effluent into constructed wetlands nearby, so county officials say they hope they will be allowed to return to that plan.

The sewage plant was part of a $16 million renovation at Key, a high school of 1,150 students about 10 miles west of Westminster. County officials thought they had an innovative approach, with their plan to construct wetlands near the plant that would absorb most of the treated sewage and funnel the rest into a tributary of Little Pipe Creek.

In July 1997, they applied for a state permit to build the plant and pump 17,000 gallons of effluent a day into the stream. Nine months later, the state granted preliminary approval for the discharge, saying it would not harm the stream or neighboring properties.

But the county had begun building the facility in October 1997. When the project was 90 percent complete, state officials learned that the county had built without a permit and refused to grant the county an operating permit.

Neighbors filed suit in Circuit Court asking a judge to order the plant dismantled. Those suits are pending.

County officials discovered this summer that the plant has suffered significant damage, probably because of disuse. Water has pooled under one of the two steel tanks in the facility and pushed it out of the ground and through the ceiling.

County officials say repairs could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

But they are not sure if it would cost more or less to run a sewer line to Union Bridge. Myers said he will spend the next several months determining how many rights of way the county would have to purchase between the school and Union Bridge and how much they would cost.

The county assembled data on the costs of such a plan in 1997, but Millender and Myers said the figures would be different today.

County officials have not mentioned options beyond pumping into constructed wetlands or sending the sewage to Union Bridge, but many variations could be considered within either of those plans, Millender said.

The commissioners heard criticism about the county's actions at Key from residents yesterday.

"It just seems like there's been a lot of indecision and only a half-hearted effort to find a solution," said Arthur Carr, who owns a 169-acre farm near the school.

Carr said he is concerned that untreated sewage might find its way from the school to his stream. County officials told him that would be unlikely and said they are trying their best to resolve the uncertainty around the treatment plant.

"We have made a lot of effort to find a solution," said Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge, who added that she is as frustrated with the process as anyone.

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