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Health Department awaits test results on creek safety

August 20, 2004|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

gregs@herald-mail.com

Warnings along Antietam Creek remained posted Thursday, nearly a week after a spill of wastewater that had not been fully disinfected fouled its waters.

Washington County Health Department spokesman Rod MacRae said the warnings likely would remain posted through the weekend, if not longer.

"We don't ... have anything in the chute that would cause us to lift that posting that I know of," MacRae said Thursday.

The health department is awaiting test results that would determine if the warnings would be removed, MacRae said.

The main concern from a public health standpoint is that levels of illness-causing bacteria from human feces were elevated by the spill.

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On Aug. 12, the City of Hagerstown's Waste Water Treatment Plant on Frederick Street spilled between 3 million and 4 million gallons of wastewater after an 11:30 p.m. electric failure.

Soon after, wastewater that had been converted from raw sewage began backing up and spilled through a flood gate into the creek. The spill stopped at about 11:30 a.m. the next day.

The electric failure halted the disinfection process, but did not shut down the whole plant; the raw sewage had been cleaned of many pollutants but bacteria remained.

The posted warnings are the heaviest sanction the health department can take, although the Maryland Department of the Environment could fine the city up to $10,000 a day for each time it is in violation of its permit.

Washington County Health Department officials had not completed laboratory testing to show whether bacteria levels in the water had returned to normal.

City Water and Sewer Department Manager David Shindle said earlier this week that bacteria levels from the water spilled from the plant were lower than what was already in the creek, but that is not always the case.

The city's sewage treatment plant has spilled water that had not been disinfected on several occasions. The Aug. 12 spill and an Aug. 1 spill of 2.7 million gallons of wastewater were blamed on a large-scale fuse failure.

Earlier spills this year and last year were blamed on sewage plant capacity problems that happened most often during heavy rain or snow melt.

This week, city officials outlined nearly $1 million in new spending measures to speed up system repairs and create new staff positions to stave off sewage capacity problems.

The city also is embarking on an estimated $5.4 million process to increase the plant's pumping capacity. That project was approved by the City Council earlier this year and is expected to be finished late next year.

City officials also expect to spend another $100,000 to $200,000 by the end of the year to fix the electric problem; $115,000 to pay for rented electric generators; and an unknown amount to pay for an extra mobile pump.

A $7 million to $9 million project on which construction is expected to begin in late 2005 or 2006 would address new state pollution standards and involves installing a new disinfection system, said Robert Rectanus, an engineering contractor for the city.

The state would pay for much of that project using money from the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Restoration Fund, which was created with the so-called flush tax that was adopted this year by the General Assembly.

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