Meade sewage plans decried

Sludge incinerator trashed for impact on environment

February 07, 2007|By Phillip McGowan | Phillip McGowan,sun reporter

Fort Meade is proposing to build a sewage sludge incinerator, a prospect that has drawn outrage among western Anne Arundel County civic leaders and criticism from the county's top health official about the potential environmental and health impacts.

The Maryland Department of the Environment is holding a public hearing tonight in Odenton to discuss plans by a Tennessee contractor, Ameresco Federal Solutions, to build the incinerator near the Army post's sewage plant adjacent to the intersection of Routes 32 and 198.

The incinerator would run 24 hours a day on weekdays, disposing of hundreds of tons of sewage a year more cheaply than by trucking the waste away, county and Fort Meade officials said.

MDE spokesman Robert Ballinger declined to disclose details about the incinerator and did not return a phone call yesterday seeking comment. Ameresco Federal Solutions did not reply to an e-mail request for information.

County health officials said that MDE has issued a tentative approval for the incinerator, but a Fort Meade spokeswoman, Summer Barkley, said yesterday in an e-mail that the post will not make a decision about the project for at least six months. She said a series of improvements being made at the post's sewage treatment plant might reduce the volume of sludge.

Civic leaders from Russett, Maryland City and Odenton said they learned of the scheduled public hearing Monday. Members of the Restoration Advisory Board, a group of residents and regulators overseeing Fort Meade's Superfund environmental cleanup, learned of the proposal when contacted yesterday by The Sun.

"I thought we were past the point of the base trying to sneak things through," Zoe B. Draughon, co-chairwoman of the Restoration Advisory Board. "I am obviously mistaken."

Summer referred questions about the timing of the public hearing to MDE.

There are about 170 sewage sludge incinerators in the United States, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The facilities heat the waste to over 1,500 degrees, burning solid waste into ash, and producing electricity.

The Sun reported last summer that the demand for electricity to operate expanding intelligence systems at the National Security Agency, which is headquartered at Fort Meade, has left the high-tech eavesdropping agency on the verge of exceeding its power supply.

Activists questioned the placement of an incinerator at the nexus of impending massive growth to sweep over western Anne Arundel. An estimated 20,000 defense workers are expected to settle at Fort Meade over the next four years, a movement that will spawn billions of dollars of residential and office development from Hanover to Laurel and Odenton.

"This is ridiculous," said Ray Smallwood, president of the Maryland City Civic Association. "This is something that needs a lot of study. Haven't they thought about the environmental impact?" Smallwood added: "I can't believe they had the audacity to do this."

Several activists called on MDE to schedule a second hearing to allow for broader public comment. According to an advance copy of county Health Officer Frances B. Phillips's testimony to be read tonight, she criticizes MDE for not adequately advertising the hearing on the proposed incinerator.

Phillips also raises concerns that an incinerator -- which would emit mercury sulfur, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide and lead -- could lead to declining air quality and pollute groundwater.

She also points out that there are six public schools on the base, with a combined enrollment of more than 2,000. At least 169 students are known to have asthma, she says.

County Councilman G. James "Jamie" Benoit, a Piney Orchard Democrat, decried the incinerator's potential health effect on those children. He is delivering a letter to MDE to voice his displeasure with the project.

David A. Tibbetts, vice president of the Greater Odenton Improvement Association and the organization's environmental chairman, said the county already has one of the highest ozone levels in the country. "And now we are going to add another source of ozone" Tibbetts said. "It just doesn't make any sense."

Phillips in her testimony questions assertions by MDE that incinerator emissions would not exceed air-quality standards set by the EPA. County officials note that MDE does not monitor air quality at Fort Meade.

"It is therefore conjecture to claim that new emissions" will not exceed EPA standards, according to the testimony.

She further noted that at a meeting at MDE headquarters on Jan. 31, state officials said that "the combustion process itself generally does not produce odors, but that stored sludge awaiting burning is often a source of noxious odor."

Barkley, the Fort Meade spokeswoman, said that the Army has been pursuing an "energy-efficient process" since 2004 to convert sludge at the post's sewage plant into ash, which would be dumped at a local landfill. She said the incinerator would be cost-effective over the current process of trucking the sludge to farms in Maryland and Virginia to be used as fertilizer.

Barkley said that Fort Meade produces about 1,550 tons of dried sludge per year. In 2005, that translated into 661 truckloads, she said.

Ameresco would build the incinerator and under an elaborate lease deal with the military, Fort Meade would come to own the "Biomass Conversion Center" over a series of several years.

phill.mcgowan@baltsun.com

The hearing will begin at 7 p.m. at the West County Area Library, 1325 Annapolis Road.

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