Judge delays fines for wastewater plant violations

Officials foresee savings of more than $100,000

Carroll County

December 01, 2004|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

Carroll County will save more than $100,000 in fines for temperature violations last summer at its wastewater treatment plant near Hampstead while the county takes its case to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, officials learned yesterday.

Carroll Circuit Judge J. Barry Hughes ruled against the county's request that he review the Maryland Department of Environment requirements. But he granted the county's request to stay the imposition of fines and the enforcement of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit issued by MDE in January for one year, or until the appeals court reaches a final decision.

In an opinion dated Nov. 20, Hughes wrote that enforcing compliance during an appeal could render the county's right of appeal meaningless.

During the process, county officials hope to convince MDE that its temperature limits should be modified for the treated water that is released into Piney Run, said County Attorney Kimberly A. Millender.

"We're the guinea pigs," Millender said, predicting that other counties would be affected by the addition of temperature limits to treatment plant permits. "We know MDE is starting to include temperature in other Class 3 streams."

In Baltimore County, Piney Run becomes Western Run and flows into Loch Raven Reservoir.

G. Macy Nelson, attorney for the Baltimore County residents who have battled the treatment plant since 1995, said, "We won this case."

He plans to ask that the case be speeded up and to contest the stay of penalties.

"We plan to keep the heat on Carroll County. They've got a fight on their hands," Nelson said.

Nelson noted that Hughes called the county's argument "disingenuous" and "erroneous," and predicted that the commissioners would lose their appeal.

However, Hughes also wrote: "This case involves MDE's first attempt to impose a temperature limitation on a discharge permit. As such, the regulations at issue have not previously been interpreted."

The temperature of the water discharged from the plant exceeded MDE limits more than 30 times last summer, with a potential fine of $1,500 a day. The plant was built in 1975.

"We'll be saving a lot of money," said Commissioner Dean L. Minnich yesterday, upon learning of the ruling.

The county already had sent out requests for bid proposals for air-cooled chillers - expected to cost about $1.7 million - to cool the water before it is discharged, but had not signed installation contracts, said Millender. The discharge, or effluent, cannot exceed 68 degrees under MDE regulations.

Millender told the county commissioners the judge's order is retroactive to Feb. 1 and prevents the accumulation of fines during the appeal, saving the county up to $100,000.

"We had serious concerns about potential violations. With the stay, we don't have to worry about that. It will give us time to review alternatives," she said. "The deadline hanging over us has been lifted. It gives us time to pursue other options, time to work with the state on other alternatives. This affects other counties, too - the overall global solution to temperature limits."

Nelson said the county should agree to an accelerated hearing on the appeal - if it is sincere.

"The question is what the county's going to do," he said. "We're going to push, push, push."

Carroll officials have repeatedly questioned the state's temperature limits and Piney Run's classification as a trout stream.

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