Debate intensifies over wastewater plant vital to school addition

Citizens' petition for review of project may mean delay for the expansion of Glenelg High

July 17, 2005|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,SUN STAFF

Howard County school officials say a proposed wastewater treatment plant for Glenelg High School is safe.

So does the Maryland Department of the Environment, which approved a permit that is "fully protective of public health and state groundwater quality standards."

But several western Howard residents are not too sure.

"What options do you have when you create a monster?" said Rose Fieghenne, a longtime Glenelg resident who lives near the high school. "I haven't seen evidence of assurances. Who am I supposed to believe? I need to go with my instinct and beliefs."

So, Fieghenne, along with 98 western Howard residents, petitioned for another review of the project -- putting on hold construction of a 400-seat addition at the school while the case is before the state Office of Administrative Hearings.

Anthony Gorski, an attorney representing the school system, said he plans to file a motion this week to dismiss the case. A hearing to consider all motions is scheduled for Aug. 3.

The opposition is the latest development in disputes over how to replace Glenelg's aging septic system, which in turn has hampered construction of the addition for many years. School officials say the addition's completion could be delayed until August 2007.

Schools, like homes in western Howard, do not have public water and sewer and must depend on MDE to approve permits for septic or wastewater treatment systems.

Three years ago, the school system bought 22.7 acres from the adjoining Musgrove family farm for Glenelg's new septic system. In exchange, school officials agreed to build a second septic system for a planned 30-home community on the remaining Musgrove land.

Revised state guidelines forced the school system to redesign the septic systems as a single, shared wastewater treatment facility that would serve Glenelg and the proposed development.

Opponents fear that their drinking water might become contaminated, given that two more wastewater plants are to come online in the county's western region: one at Marriotts Ridge High School in Marriottsville next month and another at a new elementary school in Dayton next year.

Mary Jane Grauso, a parent of a middle school pupil who is scheduled to attend Glenelg High next year, questioned whether the region's aquifer could handle tens of thousands of gallons of wastewater from three plants and called for stringent monitoring of water quality.

"The end result will be we're going to get this," Grauso said of Glenelg's plant. "We just want to make sure, if we're going to get this, that we have a sense of safety for our water."

Enos Levy, a 30-year Glenelg resident who opposes the wastewater facility, said he is concerned because the plant will be built about 50 feet from his property on Sharp Road.

Levy said MDE officials have not given him a clear indication of how far the treated wastewater will filter through the ground.

"Will it come across and pollute my land?" said Levy.

Grauso, Fieghenne and Levy have hired Ellicott City lawyer Allen Dyer to represent them in a series of hearings.

Also at issue are concerns over the proposed plant's design, operations, maintenance and monitoring.

Requirements of a permit for Glenelg's proposed plant are more stringent, particularly with the release of nitrate in the discharged water, because the facility will sit near the Triadelphia Reservoir watershed, said MDE spokeswoman Richard McIntire.

The proposed facility will use a technology called "sequencing batch reactor," or SBR, that treats raw sewage in a single tank at different stages. The plant would be allowed a daily wastewater flow of 50,000 gallons to accommodate the school and the adjoining development.

"It's proven technology," said Ed Winant, an engineering scientist from the National Small Flows Clearinghouse at West Virginia University. "One advantage that's been touted for SBR is nutrient removal. Nitrogen is the primary nutrient we're talking about."

Wastewater facilities at Marriotts Ridge High School and the Dayton elementary school will use the same technology, according to school officials.

Grauso questioned the experience of the engineering firm hired to design Glenelg's plant, as well as its operations.

"The other concern is who's going to run it," she said. "Who's qualified to run it? Is it the [Howard] Department of Education? They're not the expert."

School officials plan to contract with Maryland Environmental Service, a quasi-state agency that operates water and wastewater plants around the state, to operate Glenelg's facility.

The agency has had early discussions with the school system about that possibility, said spokeswoman Chris Garrigan. (MES has been hired to operate Marriotts Ridge High School's wastewater plant.)

"On a basic run, SBR is going to provide good treatment," Winant said. "With a skilled operator and designer who have put thought into that, you could improve that tremendously."

Another point of contention for opponents is the arrangement between the school system and the developer of the Musgrove farm property.

"It's public money going into private property," said Dyer, the lawyer representing several residents contesting the permit.

While the agreement is unusual, Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin said the school system checked legal requirements before signing it.

"I don't see that as an issue at all," Cousin said. "The idea originally was to have two separate systems, and it's MDE insisting that we have one system."

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