Sewage plans raise doubts

June 15, 2008|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Sun reporter

Environmentalists are questioning Howard County's management of its sewage system and plans to add a $66 million sewer pipe, both crucial to the proposed redevelopment of central Columbia.

"We have suspicions about this leaky, stinky pipeline," said Fred Tutman, who represents the nonprofit advocacy group Riverkeepers on Maryland's Patuxent River Commission.

County officials strongly defend their stewardship of the system and their efforts to preserve water quality, noting plans to spend $85 million to reduce nutrient runoff from the Little Patuxent Wastewater Reclamation Plant in Savage and the new 10.5-mile pipeline that is to run from Savage through Columbia north to Route 108. Construction is to begin next year.

"Our purpose is to have a safe system," county Public Works Director James Irvin told the Patuxent River Commission last week during its monthly meeting.

"We're not trying to cut corners or save pennies," Irvin said. "We're trying to do the right thing."

The new pipeline is not designed to accommodate increased development, but only to better serve development already in the county's General Plan, Irvin said.

The commission is a 34-member regional group formed in 1980 to address pollution in the river's watershed. The group acts as a focus for discussion and action on plans to remedy degradation of the river, especially by sewage treatment plants.

The debate raises the profile of a vital but little-noticed ingredient in the much discussed Columbia town center redevelopment, and county officials clearly feel the urgency.

"If we don't have it [the sewer line], we're up a creek," said County Council member Mary Kay Sigaty. The Democrat represents central Columbia and the council on the Patuxent River Commission.

Sigaty said Tutman never contacted her and told the commission she is "really proud" of Howard's efforts to improve water quality, which include diverting to Savage some north county sewage that would otherwise go to Baltimore's less well-equipped Patapsco treatment plant.

Tutman said he is not a technical expert and has no proof of neglect or undisclosed problems but that he has heard the complaints and walked the sewer line and viewed cracks in pipes.

The June 4 spill of 400,000 gallons of untreated sewage into the Little Patuxent River, which runs past the county's wastewater treatment plant in Savage, didn't help. County officials blamed a loss of electrical power during heavy thunderstorms.

Tutman said county officials have ignored complaints about odors from people living near the county's plant in Savage - a charge officials deny - and that the existing pipeline shows signs of poor maintenance.

He agreed, at Sigaty's request, to give the county the names of people who have complained about the odors.

One is Myra Phelps, 46, who said in a separate telephone interview that she often detects foul odors, often after a rainstorm, that she attributes to the county plant.

"This whole area of Savage smells like nothing but raw sewage," the Baltimore Street resident said.

Irvin said the county responds to all complaints and attributes the sewer odors to Savage Mills, a former weaving mill that was converted into a retail complex. One tenant, the Rams Head Tavern, has been cited several times for violations involving excess grease in recent years.

The existing pipeline is "in pretty good shape for being 40 years old," Irvin said. "We don't think there are issues of the pipe overflowing on a regular basis."

The pipeline exceeds national standards for water infiltrating into the line, and once the new pipeline is built, the old one will be repaired, he said.

Surface cracks don't mean the pipeline is unsound, he said. Manhole covers are occasionally dislodged by vandals and are inspected and replaced, he said.

Commission Chairman Bernie Fowler, a former state senator who has worked for decades to restore the Patuxent River's water quality to the level he observed as a youth in the 1950s, said he worries about the river's fate despite the money spent and plans made.

"We have a river that at one time was abundant with aquatic life," he said at the hearing. "Now we have 60 million gallons of wastewater. The more we put in there, the greater the chances are the river won't be able to survive."

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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