The sniff test

January 05, 2004

TO DEVELOPERS, Ocean City smells like money. Tourists are lured by the scent of French fries and funnel cakes. But something altogether less pleasant is wafting through the air around the resort's booming mid-town -- and now it looks as if something is finally going to be done about it.

Ocean City officials are looking to spend about $2.6 million next year to reduce the odors generated by the community's sewage treatment plant at 64th Street on the bayside. In the long term, the town will likely approve at least $3 million more to upgrade its nearby solid-waste transfer station and recycling center. Both projects should sweeten the air significantly.

For more than a decade, the town has heard from local residents about the olfactory assaults perpetrated by its trash and sewage complex -- many of the loudest complaints lodged by Ocean City's own workers (about 300 of the town's public works and public safety employees are housed just a Dumpster toss away at 65th Street). A consultant's report last summer found significant levels of hydrogen sulfide (the bacteria-generated gas that smells a lot like rotten eggs) as far away as the oceanfront. It's clearly been a nuisance, especially to surrounding development, including an existing waterpark, an adjoining motel and a restaurant so close that diners have a view of the plant's outdoor settling tanks.

But the stakes have recently gotten higher. Construction has started on a 522-unit mix of condominiums, townhouses and cottages covering 47 previously vacant acres, with prices starting "in the upper $300's." It's Ocean City's largest condo development ever and has business and government leaders salivating (it's expected to generate more tax revenues than the next biggest town in Worcester County). The development's proximity to the town's trash/sewage/empty beer bottle epicenter isn't touted in any of the sales brochures, but that's exactly where it can be found -- on the waterfront north of 66th (a prime reason why the lot hadn't been developed in the first place).

Developers have agreed to pony up as much as $1.56 million to replace the overburdened and unsightly recycling center. Ocean City has already spent millions to upgrade its sludge disposal at the site, and its anti-odor campaign could ultimately wipe out 90 percent or more of the problem, leaving "virtually no detectable odor off-site," according to the town's consultant. That will be done primarily by injecting chlorine at certain stages of treatment and by enclosing the sewage plant's outdoor facilities. Air-scrubbers will freshen the exhaust.

We breathe easier knowing that Ocean City is doing something about a too-often ignored form of air pollution (New Jersey, are you paying attention?), and making a summer vacation in smelling range of 64th Street a little more pleasant for everyone.

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