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State's sewer demand may slow county growth

June 12, 1998|By STEVEN T. DENNIS

State regulators have slashed the number of new customers that could hook into Hagerstown's sewage treatment plant, a move that could hamper economic development and boost prospects for a sewer agreement between the city and Washington County.

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In an April 14 letter, the Maryland Department of the Environment told the city it rated the plant for 66,000 gallons of unused capacity per day, down significantly from the previous 980,000 gallons.

With a rating of 66,000 gallons, the city could add only 264 new homes to the system, the letter said.

City officials have appealed and said they are confident the state will raise the rating.

City Administrator Bruce Zimmerman said in a May 5 letter to the state that 66,000 gallons was "insufficient" to serve future development in the city and surrounding areas in the county.

Quentin Banks, MDE spokesman, said Thursday that the state is reviewing the appeal and no decision has been reached.

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Banks said the state monitors treatment plant flows over a two-year period to determine the plant's excess capacity. The drop in the Hagerstown plant's capacity was due to excessive stormwater getting into the system through leaky pipes, Banks said.

Water Pollution Control Manager Rick Thomas said the state rating was based in part on sewage flows in 1996, when rainfall broke records.

The rain skewed the rating, he said.

Thomas said the city is working to plug the leaks.

If the state doesn't change its position, the city could decide to send sewage to Washington County's underused Conococheague Wastewater Treatment Plant.

That would give the county a larger customer base to offset its $53 million water and sewer debt.

City, county and state officials met at MDE offices last Thursday to discuss the situation, county Public Works Director Gary Rohrer said.

"We feel we can help the city," Rohrer said.

County Commissioner Ronald L. Bowers said the county had to deal with a moratorium on new sewer connections in the 1980s, which ultimately led to the construction of the Conococheague plant.

"A moratorium is right around the corner," Bowers predicted.

Bowers said it would be a tragedy if economic development is stifled because the city and the county couldn't agree to a joint plan to use the Conococheague plant.

"Let's let the Conococheague do what it was supposed to do," he said.

City Councilman William Breichner predicted that the state would increase the capacity rating after an appeal.

He said he didn't think that the drop in the rating would speed up negotiations.

He said negotiations with the county have been going well but the outcome would be determined by what makes the most economic sense.

Greg Murray, director of the Washington County Water and Sewer Department, said that 200,000 gallons a day now going to the city's plant - the equivalent of about 1,000 houses - could be redirected to the county's plant at a cost of $300,000.

Murray said the city could eliminate its pump station near the Washington County Detention Center, saving money on maintenance and freeing up more capacity at the city plant.

City and county officials also are talking about who will provide sewer service to the planned Centre at Hagerstown shopping center on U.S. 40 west of town. County officials want that sewage to flow to the Conococheague.

Rohrer said that sewage would have to be pumped to the city but could flow by gravity to the Conococheague, after a $1.7 million interceptor line is installed. That line could be paid for by the general fund so it wouldn't affect the rates paid by current county users, Rohrer said.

Thomas said another long-term option would be for the city to spend $3.5 million to increase capacity at its plant by 2.5 million gallons.

The Conococheague plant is operating at about one third of its 2.5 million gallon capacity. It will be expanded to a 3.75 million gallon capacity in the next couple of years, Rohrer said.

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