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Editorial - Finger-pointing not enough

July 22, 1997

Depending on which Washington County Commissioner you listen to, the Conococheague Wastewater Pretreatment Facility is either an $11 million gamble gone wrong or a diamond in the rough that just needs some polishing. As is usually the case, the answer is probably somewhere in between.

Despite a series of warning signs, in 1993 the county board went ahead with plans for the $9 million facility, hoping it would draw new industry. But the only full-scale marketing effort fell apart when Dave Barnhart left his job as a coordinator for the Economic Development Commission in 1994. It now runs at a loss, and was one factor in this year's tax increase.

One bar to new customers is a condition attached to the bonds which financed the plant, stating that firms using the facility can't pump their waste in, but must transport it by truck instead.

The other is that because there weren't contracts signed with industries before the plant was built, the plant's treatment process couldn't be tailored to specific industries. That forced the county to turn away its major customer, Mack Trucks, because its emulsified oily waste was causing major damage to the plant.

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So what are the options? Just walking away isn't one of them, because even if the plant's doors were shut, it would still cost the county $4.5 million for debt service alone in the next six years.

We believe a combination of approaches should be explored, including marketing. Greg Larson, who's been moved to the regular county payroll from the Convention and Visitors' Bureau, once sold out-of-towners on holding conventions here; maybe he could sell industry on using this plant.

Before that's done, however, the county needs to try removing the bar to having industries pipe waste to the plant, and see what grants are available to pay for that piping or modify the plant to meet certain companies' needs. The one option we rule out as unacceptable is continuing to watch the debt pile up without a plan to deal with it. It is not enough to say that building the plant was a mistake. All elected officials, even those who had nothing to do with the original decision, need to work on finding a solution.

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