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Dumping offender sought

February 14, 2002

Dumping offender sought



By DAN KULIN
dank@herald-mail.com


The state is asking for the public's help to find out who dumped the chemicals into Hagerstown's sewer system that prompted the partial shut-down of the plant Saturday.

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Anyone who saw suspicious activity or dumping into the Hagerstown sewer system over the weekend is asked to call the Maryland Department of the Environment's Hagerstown office at 301-739-8068, MDE spokesman Richard McIntire said Wednesday.

Five days after the sewer plant was partially shutdown, state and city officials say the quality of the waste water flowing from the sewer plant and into the Antietam Creek is improving.

McIntire said that thanks to a switch to a chlorine disinfection process on Tuesday the waste water, which eventually flows into the Potomac River south of Sharpsburg, is no longer considered contaminated. The chlorine kills most of the bacteria that MDE is most concerned about, he said.

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City Water Pollution Control Department Manager Rick Thomas said the waste water coming from the plant is now "mostly treated."

"We're not at our best," said Thomas, who added that it will be at least three more days before treatment is "back to normal."

The public is being advised not to come into contact with the creek because contaminants from the plant could be lingering in its waters, McIntire said.

MDE officials have inspected wildlife on the creek and found no ill effects from the contaminated waste water, he said.

He said the polluted waste water should pose no risk to drinking water since any contaminants would be greatly diluted by the creek and then the Potomac River into which the creek flows.

But the City of Brunswick, which has the closest drinking water treatment plant down river from the Hagerstown plant, shut down its water plant Tuesday evening.

The Brunswick plant was to be restarted after any contamination from the Hagerstown plant passes, according to a statement from Brunswick Mayor Carroll A. Jones.

The Hagerstown plant dumps about 5.6 million gallons of waste water a day into Antietam Creek.

The plant was partially shut down Saturday after plant operators determined some substance had killed the sewage-eating bacteria the plant uses to make waste water more treatable.

With the shutdown, the high-purity oxygen used in the treatment process was turned off. The city uses the oxygen to help the sewage-eating bacteria thrive and to make the ozone used to disinfect the waste water.

The phases of the treatment process that filter out large material and sludge continued as normal while other parts of the treatment process were stopped.

Without ozone to disinfect the waste water, high levels of fecal coliform bacteria flowed into the creek.

Tuesday afternoon the plant switched to using chlorine to disinfect the waste water.

New sewage-eating bacteria is growing in the plant and does treat some of the sewage as it passes through, but that bacteria is still not up to desirable levels, Thomas said.

The chemicals toluene, xylene and ethylbenzene, which are common in plastics, insecticides, paint and many other manufacturing products, turned out to be the contaminants that killed the bacteria, according Thomas and McIntire.

Although the chemicals have been identified, it was not known Wednesday who put the chemicals into the sewer system and how much of the chemicals made their way to the city plant.

The chemicals could have been dumped by a business or someone could have trucked it in and dumped it in manholes, Thomas said.

Thomas said it was highly unlikely the chemicals came from a residence because it would take a large amount of the chemicals to affect the plant as they did.

In an effort to find the source of the harmful chemicals Saturday, sewage samples were collected at several sewer pumping stations. Samples also were collected at Mack Trucks north of Hagerstown and at Good Humor/Breyers, an ice cream plant next to the sewer plant off Frederick Street, Thomas said.

No traces of the contaminants were found in those samples, which means the chemicals probably did not come from those places, Thomas said.

Thomas said he had Mack Trucks sewage tested because that plant uses substances that include chemicals similar to those that caused the problems at the sewer plant.

The contaminant chemicals were found in samples taken from Washington County's Conococheague sewage treatment plant, Thomas said.

This could mean that someone dumped the chemicals into the city and county sewer systems, or it could just be a coincidence, he said.

Greg Murray, the county's director of water and sewer operations, said those chemicals are not usually found at the county plant. He said he thinks their presence in the city and county systems is a coincidence.

The levels of the chemical were too low to harm the county treatment process, which Murray said is a little smaller than the city's.

"There's nothing to lead me to believe that someone dumped into both (sewer) systems. I'm leaning toward coincidence," Murray said.

MDE, the city and county were all looking into how the chemicals made their way into the sewer system.

McIntire said MDE officials have been testing sewage pumping stations and manholes, inspected businesses and interviewed business people - he wouldn't say who - as part of their investigation.

"This is a very serious matter," he said.

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