School septic tank installed without proper permits

Ecker calls for probe of lapse in procedure

Carroll County

January 28, 2004|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

Five years after building a wastewater treatment plant at a Union Bridge high school without any environmental or construction permits, the Carroll County school system installed a septic holding tank last week at North Carroll Middle School without the required septic and building permits.

The tank was installed Jan. 19 as crews prepared bathrooms for a mini-campus of portable classrooms that will serve as "swing space" at North Carroll Middle, which will be emptied one wing at a time over the next 19 months in a major, $18.2 million renovation.

School officials called the county Health Department three days later to let them know they had buried the tank without applying for proper authorization. They quickly completed the applications, and the Health Department issued the permits a day later, on Jan. 23, according to Raymond Prokop, the school system's facilities director.

Although installation of the holding tank was neither as large-scale a project as the $800,000 treatment plant nor as costly an error, school officials said yesterday that the mistake is still a big one.

"If you need a permit to do something, you need a permit," schools Superintendent Charles I. Ecker said yesterday in an interview. "Of course, [Francis Scott Key] was a lot bigger project with more dollars involved. But the point is, a permit's a permit, regardless of the size of a project, and you have to do those things."

Told yesterday of the school system's error, school board President C. Scott Stone was similarly concerned.

"Why is it that we seem to forget or not know that permits are required for every stage of school construction?" he asked. "It concerns me from a process perspective. How did it happen? Why was it installed before they had a permit? And more importantly: Why didn't we know a permit was needed?"

Stephen Guthrie, the school system's assistant superintendent of administration, said he has been investigating those questions.

He said that the superintendent has designated investigation of the tank's installation a "high-urgency issue" and "wants to take decisive action very quickly."

Guthrie said he has spoken to Health Department officials and school system staff working on the North Carroll modernization and is waiting to talk to the contractor who installed the tank. Then, he said, he'll make a recommendation to Ecker about "what the fix should be."

Although he would not discuss what he characterized as "personnel issues," Guthrie did say that "if it is determined that this is in any way a staff issue, we will take appropriate action."

Guthrie said he learned of the "procedural error" Jan. 21 from Prokop, the facilities director.

"To say I was upset is to put it mildly," Guthrie said. "Even though the scope of this is wildly different from Francis Scott Key, still, someone jumped ahead or there was a procedure that allowed someone to go ahead and bury a tank without a permit."

The mistake appears to have caused a lot less trouble than construction of the wastewater treatment plant at the school district's smallest high school in pastoral northwestern Carroll County.

"I'm glad it would appear that no additional costs are associated with this mistake," Stone, the school board president, said. "Nothing needs to be torn down or moved or is imposing on someone else's property. But one never knows. Mistakes have a way of cascading into other problems."

Five years ago, after school officials illegally built the treatment plant, the state balked at letting them use it. The Maryland Department of the Environment fined the county $10,000, neighbors asked the courts to order the facility dismantled and the county, which still hasn't secured an operating permit, continues to pay $330 a day to have trucks haul 6,000 gallons of waste from Francis Scott Key High to Westminster.

To make matters worse, the facility began falling apart last fall. In September, Prokop declared the treatment plant to be "effectively useless."

Yesterday, the facilities director was chagrined at what he characterized as another school construction embarrassment.

"Unfortunately, there's going to be a comparison of [the Key treatment plant and the North Carroll holding tank] and they sound the same, but it's not really a parallel thing," said Prokop, who said he was unsure how much the tank installation cost. "There is a sequence to these things that needs to be followed, and in this particular case, we're having to deal with the embarrassment of not following it."

Although a Health Department official said that "theoretically" there could be repercussions for installing a holding tank without permits, the department does not intend to penalize the school system.

"Based on how quickly they responded in getting this resolved and contacting us," said Ed Singer, director of the Health Department's environmental health division, "we wouldn't take any action in this case."

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