Plant is cleaning up its act

September 05, 2004|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

HAGERSTOWN - It's been a long time since the City of Hagerstown's sewage treatment plant has taken on serious changes, and it's showing.

It's showing in state environmental reports, in the city's budget and in city meetings where public officials from the city and county struggle over the dwindling amount of capacity the plant can handle.

But in recent months, city officials have taken steps to start dealing with that problem. That process was expedited by a series of recent equipment failures.


Those failures caused the city's plant to spill millions of gallons of wastewater that contained bacteria from human feces into the creek.

Twice in August, those spills were linked to electric problems. Other spills were linked to rainwater seeping into sewage lines - something they were not designed to handle - causing overflows at the city's plant.

While spills into the creek are short-term effects of the mechanical problems, there are more pervasive problems that some officials are worried about.

"Every county, I'm sure has ... limiting factors" for development, City Councilman Kristin B. Aleshire said Wednesday in a telephone interview. "For Washington County, (that factor) appears to be sewer" capacity.

For every time the sewer plant released water that doesn't meet standards in its state permit, it can be fined up to $10,000, according to officials with the Maryland Department of the Environment.

While MDE officials are deciding what type of punitive action should be taken against the city because of the spills, local officials are trying to deal with another problem that would put the city at odds with MDE policy.

An MDE formula determines the amount of additional sewer capacity a plant can allot for new homes, businesses and other development.

This year, the city has about 1 million gallons of capacity it would be allowed to add to its system. Next year, however, the city would have no capacity to add. If the state enforces its policy - city officials believe the MDE will not do so - no new homes or businesses could connect to the city's system until the moratorium is lifted.

But as new building happens inside and outside city limits, city and county officials must negotiate over what's left of the limited sewer capacity. Currently, the county is preparing to make a formal request for another 25,000 gallons of sewer capacity, the equivalent of the capacity needed for about 100 new homes.

It is the sewer plant's mechanical problems, however, that have driven the City Council's recent approval of new spending measures.

According to state and city reports, spills into the creek of partially treated wastewater have occurred at least eight times this year, four times topping the 1 million-gallon mark.

Donnie Barton, superintendent of the city's sewage plant, said the last major expansion at the plant was in 1980. He explained this week that the city is preparing for a new expansion that will cost several million dollars in repairs and upgrades.

The most immediate of those repairs - replacing the plant's main fuse system, which is estimated to cost between $100,000 and $200,000 - began in mid-August. When that system failed, pumps to the disinfecting system stopped, spilling between 3 million and 4 million gallons of wastewater before it was fully treated.

A $5.4 million project that would add about 13 million gallons of maximum daily pumping capacity is being designed and expected to be finished within the next 15 months.

An $8 million to $9 million project scheduled to begin sometime in 2006 will rely heavily on state funding, and is aimed at decreasing the amount of naturally occurring nutrients found in wastewater.

As part of the planning for the environmental project, engineers will look at replacing the disinfection system, which also is using older, less common technology, Barton said.

Other smaller projects are aimed at reducing the amount of rainwater that enters the sewer pipes, overloading the plant.

But even as those plans take place, other problems might arise as other parts of the plant become obsolete, Barton said.

Aleshire said the sewage problems will continue to be a concern.

"You have to have some master plan that keeps the train on the tracks, and I'm not certain that we're there," he said.

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