Sadly, there's no quick fix for city sewer malfunctions

August 24, 2004|by BOB MAGINNIS

Elsewhere on this page is a letter from a Hagerstown-area reader upset by the repeated discharges of partially treated sewage into the Antietam Creek.

Last week Mayor William Breichner and three City Council members said that fixing that problem was the city's top priority and that money would not be an issue.

That - and recent events elsewhere in the U.S. - got me to thinking about two questions: They include:

  • In areas of Florida devastated by Hurricane Charley, there are no doubt some sewer plants that have been damaged. Isn't there a contractor who can deal with an emergency refit of a sewer plant, a sewer-plant version of Paul "Red" Adair, who traveled the world putting out oil-well fires?

  • When the electrical equipment fails, isn't there a manual valve that could be shut off to prevent these discharges from going into the creek?

To get the answers, I spoke to Dave Shindle, Water and Sewer Department manager for the City of Hagerstown.


According to Shindle, the problem is something called the "switch gear," which he said had been fixed twice in recent months.

Shindle compared the switch gear to an old car that's been repaired, but which has begun to break down more frequently. Unfortunately, it is not an off-the-shelf part, but was custom-designed for the Hagerstown plant. And, when it fails, there is no back-up, he said.

Engineering money has been obtained, Shindle said, and the city's consultant, Black & Veatch, has begun to design a new piece of equipment to replace the failing switch gear.

"That will give us the redundancy we don't have now. We'll essentially have a car with two engines," he said.

The process of design and manufacture will take five months, Shindle said.

"It should be done by the end of the calendar year," he said.

In the meantime, Shindle said, the city has brought in large generators - some as big as tractor-trailers - to operate different parts of the plant process independently, essentially bypassing the malfunctioning part of the switch gear.

My other question about why the flow to the creek can't be shut off when the equipment malfunctions was easier to answer, but it's not an answer most people will like.

Shindle said that if the city shut off the flow to the creek, sewage would begin backing up into the manholes and eventually into people's homes.

Nor are there any tanks on site at the Frederick Street plant that could hold several million gallons of partially treated wastewater, Shindle said.

Shindle said that what has been discharged is not raw sewage, but wastewater that has not yet completed the last step of disinfection.

Ozone is used for final disinfection and the process of producing it is power-intensive, Shindle said, so that when there's a failure in the switch gear, disinfection can't occur.

That's not the only problem. During heavy downpours, lots of rain enters the sewer system through cracks in old pipes - a problem known as "inflow and infiltration" - which has overwhelmed the system in the past. Some of that will be corrected with a $5.4 million upgrade of the city's pumping capacity, but more work is needed.

Once again, there's no quick fix, no miracle solution. Shindle told me what I wanted to know, but the answers didn't make me happy.

Tomorrow night at 6 p.m., former Maryland General Assembly Del. Pete Callas will throw out the first ball at Municipal Stadium as part of Mike Callas night with the Hagerstown Suns.

Callas, who died earlier this year, was Mr. Civic Involvement for Washington County, giving generously of his time and money and shunning the spotlight. He found time to attend Suns' games, too, and they'll honor him for all he did tomorrow.

Some letter writers have recently suggested confronting the Ku Klux Klan when the group rallies in Sharpsburg on Saturday, Aug. 28.

I suggest that ignoring the Klan would be a better strategy, and luckily there's a good way to do that. The Peace & Unity Gathering, with food and live music, will be held that same day from 11 a.m. to dusk at the Antietam National Battlefield.

If the Klan held a rally and no one came, what would happen? Let's try it and see on Saturday.

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