Sewage pollutes Antietam

August 03, 2004|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

WASHINGTON COUNTY - Health officials said they would continue to prohibit swimming in Antietam Creek today and would discourage other creek uses, two days after partially treated sewage was released into the creek.

The City of Hagerstown Waste Water Treatment Plant off Frederick Street suffered a power outage Sunday between 6:20 a.m. and 11:40 a.m., releasing approximately 2.7 million gallons of water that had not been treated to kill bacteria, said City Water and Sewer Department Manager David Shindle.

The posted area covers much of the creek's area in Washington County, running from the treatment plant to the Potomac River.


The creek could reopen in the next few days if enough rainfall dilutes the water, but the closure could remain in effect for 30 days, said Kimmy Armstrong, a supervisor for the Washington County Health Department's Division of Environmental Health.

Others said there could be wider effects on recreation-related businesses as a result of the sewage problem.

In addition to calling for no swimming, the Health Department is advising creek users to avoid other types of contact with the water, including fishing, wading and using personal watercraft such as canoes and kayaks, Armstrong said.

While there is always some bacteria in any natural body of water, Armstrong said the levels were elevated by Sunday's release.

Because of the release, "anyone is more at risk" of getting ill from the bacteria in the water, Armstrong said.

Armstrong said there are several types of bacteria related to human feces that are removed when water is disinfected. Those bacteria can cause intestinal cramps, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting.

While the ingestion of the bacteria is not usually fatal, children, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems would be most at risk, Armstrong said.

This was the third time this year that health officials have closed portions of the creek below the city's sewage treatment plant. Each closure was a result of the city releasing water that had not been disinfected. Sunday's release was the second release of such water this year resulting from an electrical problem.

Fixing the problem

Shindle said several projects that would help avoid future releases of infected water have either been completed or are in the planning stages.

Sunday's problem was the result of a blown fuse in the sewer plant's main electric switch gear, which acts much like a home's circuit breaker box, but on a much larger scale, Shindle said.

The city's plant relies on electricity to pump the water into the disinfection process, Shindle said. Without power to that portion of the plant, solids and nutrients can still be removed from the water but there are no backup generators to run the pumps that feed water to the disinfection phase. Instead, the partially treated water flows directly into the creek.

Shindle said the plant was not designed to use backup generators, but plans to fix the electricity problem would including providing the capability of using generators. The plant should be generator-ready before the electric work is finished, which Shindle said likely would be by the end of December.

The city also is addressing overflow problems caused by excessive rainwater, which enters the sewage system due to leaks, Shindle said. One such project completed earlier this year at a cost of about $600,000 decreased the amount of storm water entering the sewage system by 13 percent by replacing old collection pipes, Shindle said.

The city also is embarking on a multimillion dollar replacement of its disinfection system, which Shindle said is at least 20 years old. He said officials hope to start construction on that project along with a related, state-funded sewer project by the end of 2005.

The sewage releases could have a negative effect on local tourism, said Thomas Riford, president and chief executive officer of the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"If people have a choice of traveling to two places that are absolutely equal, and one was just in the news ... people are more likely to choose the place that didn't have any (bad) news," Riford said.

At least one person who relies on the creek for business was not happy to learn about the most recent closure.

"It's a major problem for us," said Mary Rotz, a co-owner of Antietam Recreation, a summer day camp based along the creek south of Funkstown. "You'd think they'd be more careful."

Rotz said no-swim placards had been removed from the creek within the last two weeks after a similar sewage release in June.

Rotz said her camp has plenty of other activities to pass the time for the 200 children enrolled, but parents expressed concern about the June closure.

After hearing of the city's plans to fix the problems, Rotz said she was glad to learn that, "but we like to have clear water."

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