Some things just don't belong in water we drink

August 05, 2004|by TIM ROWLAND

I recall years and years ago, a group of us reporters would argue passionately among the editors that some events in the Tri-State area happened so frequently we ought to save the headline so it could be used over and over again.

(Well, replace "the editors" with "ourselves" and "passionately" with "drunkenly" and you might be a little closer to encroaching upon the truth).

One of them was "Pennsylvania Warehouse Burns" and another was "Sewage Pollutes Antietam."

Well, it's all happening again. According to The Herald-Mail, "The City of Hagerstown Waste Water Treatment Plant off Frederick Street suffered a power outage Sunday ... releasing 2.7 million gallons of water that had not been treated to kill bacteria."

The report says that swimming and other creek uses will be discouraged following the release of "partially treated sewage."

My immediate question is, Which part was treated? The color? The consistency? The taste? This could affect my decision. If the water is clear, but it still has flavor, I don't want any part of it.


Simply put, there are some things you can put up with in your drinking water and some thing's you can't:

Green tint: Yes.

Brown tint: Nothing darker than the standard file folder.

Occasional minute particles: OK.

Fuzz: No.

But what I found most excellent about this was the photograph that accompanied the story. With the crick in the background, there was a sign reading:


On Sunday a bypass of the disinfection

system allowed 2,700,000 gallons of

treated wastewater to be released from the City of Hagerstown's Wastewater

treatment facility.

But the really cool part, was that the sign actually had blanks for the date and quantity, with the "Sunday" and "2,700,000" penciled in. So the sign would originally read:


On ________ a bypass of the disinfection

system allowed _________ gallons of

treated wastewater to be released from the ...

Isn't that great? Like, they must have a big stack of these signs in the utility closet they can routinely haul out and fill in just as efficiently and conveniently as the cover sheet for a fax. Well, if the editors weren't listening to us, at least maybe the City of Hagerstown was.

The other question I have is with the phrase: "... allowed 2,700,000 gallons of treated wastewater to be released ..."

Well, if it's treated, what's the problem?

Mark my words, this joke will come back to haunt. Every time I make a lighthearted comment about some public works project, (e.g., "How many Washington County Commissioners does it take to repair a bridge?") I get calls from engineers determined to turn me into an expert on infrared biokinetics vis--vis power surge gradients. Not that I am not fascinated - who wouldn't be - by the inner workings of a sewer plant, but frequently it's awfully difficult to explain to technically minded individuals that you were just making a joke.

Anyhoo, unless you are a child with an elderly immune system, health officials say there is no life-threatening danger from the bacteria, although they could produce "cramps, diarrhea, nausea and cause tadpoles to mutate into flesh-eating sea monsters."

For the record, I like the phrase "... usually not fatal." That's always reassuring. Travel Bureau President Tom Riford, however, took the contrarian point of view, and argued that an event in your county that "is usually not fatal" isn't necessarily good for tourism. People who hear that we're polluting our water are less likely to visit, he said.

Well, I suppose that's one way of looking at it. But if the pollutants get so thick that we can walk on the water, that changes the equation entirely. Besides, a little positive advertising can go a long way.

Here, Washington County is taking the lead. The county dump is located on "Earth Care Road" and the county sewer department changed its name to the "Department of Water Quality." Obviously, this is why the city sewer department is having so much trouble. It needs to change its name to something positive, such as the "Division of Violets."

Or better yet, the City of Hagerstown Not Usually Fatal Department.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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