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Notifying public of sewage spills has a 'time lag'

August 05, 2004|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

gregs@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN - Efforts to notify the public after a local waterway becomes polluted by man-made problems can take hours to reach the intended audience, and sometimes longer.

"There's just simply a time lag that's inherent in the process," said Rod MacRae, spokesman for the Washington County Health Department.

On Sunday, the City of Hagerstown's Waste Water Treatment Plant released into Antietam Creek 2.7 million gallons of water that had not been disinfected during the sewage treatment process. Water that has not been disinfected contains illness-causing bacteria from human feces.

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In such cases, officials put information out through local media and by posting signs, but many people might not know the water has been polluted, said James Kline, 55, a Hagerstown resident who is a member of a national fishing and conservation group.

He said that after other similar incidents, he has seen people "still fishing, still touching the water."

"There's people that have no understanding whatsoever" of the problems with the creek, Kline said.

There are procedures that officials are supposed to follow when there is a release of untreated or partially treated sewage water. For instance, plant operators are supposed to notify state health and environmental officials within 24 hours of the onset of the malfunction. If the release is more than 10,000 gallons, officials also must notify the public.

According to the timeline provided by officials this week, it took four to five hours before signs were posted along the creek, and another hour or so before media were notified.

Plant records show that a power fuse at the plant blew at about 6:19 a.m. Sunday, City Water and Sewer Department Manger David Shindle said. When the fuse blew, power stopped to the pumps that feed sewage water to the plant's disinfection system, the last process before water goes into Antietam Creek.

Workers were called in to start working on the problem, Shindle said. At about 10 a.m., they also began posting warnings on the creek.

The first contact with the Maryland Department of the Environment was made at 9:07 a.m., according to records distributed to state environmental officials, said Brad Metzger, an MDE inspector.

Metzger said he received a call from his supervisor, and 10 to 15 minutes later - at about 10:40 a.m. according to his own notes - he called the on-call representative at the Washington County Health Department.

That representative, Kimmy Armstrong, said she then called MacRae. MacRae said he believed the call came shortly after 11:40 a.m., when city officials said the flow of partially treated water ended.

By the end of the incident, 2.7 million gallons of partially treated water had been dumped into the creek. According to city information, it would take a pool 51/2 times the size of Potterfield Pool on Frederick Street to hold the amount of polluted water released on Sunday.

MacRae said that under normal circumstances, he would fax information to 15 offices and local media organizations, but on Sunday, without a fax machine, he said he called only WHAG-TV and The Herald-Mail, where he left a voice mail that was not received until Monday morning.

Shindle, Armstrong and MacRae said they had received no complaints about the time it took to put out the information, and MacRae said he wasn't sure if there was a better way to do it.

"I think that it's appropriate for the type of problem. I don't know that it could be made more expeditious without ... outstripping the significance of the problem," MacRae said.

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