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Hagerstown faces lawsuit over sewage

November 24, 2004|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

gregs@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN - A Rockville, Md., environmental activist group has begun the official process to sue the City of Hagerstown under federal laws governing water cleanliness.

Lawyers for Rockville-based Potomac Riverkeeper said in a letter sent to the city Friday that the complaint stems from problems with the city's Waste Water Treatment Plant on Frederick Street. The group said it will sue the city within 60 days if several problems are not corrected by that time.

City officials have not formed their response, but the outcome will be determined largely by an agreement nearing completion between the city and the Maryland Department of the Environment, Mayor William M. Breichner said Tuesday.

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Potomac Riverkeeper Executive Director Edwin Merrifield said this week that the federal Clean Water Act requires his group to notify the city if it intends to sue.

"The whole point here is to clean up the water," Merrifield said.

The letter sent to the city lists three areas of problems over the past three years, and said if those problems are not corrected after 60 days, a lawsuit will be filed against the city.

The letter states that the city violated its federal permit by releasing as much as 90 million gallons of partially treated wastewater; the city did not properly operate the facility under federal guidelines; and it did not file monthly reports on time.

Breichner said he has not seen the letter, but the city recorded receipt of the letter on Tuesday.

Breichner said he does not yet know what the city's response to the letter will be, and said that will be determined by the City Attorney's Office.

Breichner said he thinks some claims made by Potomac Riverkeeper might be exaggerated.

"We've been very prompt in notifying the proper authorities" after permit-violating sewer plant releases, Breichner said.

In its letter, Potomac Riverkeeper said 30 million to 60 million gallons of raw sewage were dumped into Antietam Creek, a Potomac River tributary, during a storm in September 2003.

"I don't know if that's true," Breichner said. He said it's possible in that instance that it was not raw sewage that was spilled, but rather wastewater that was not fully treated and diluted by rainwater, which officials say is less harmful than untreated, undiluted sewage.

If a lawsuit is eventually filed, "they're gonna have to provide a little bit more detail," Breichner said.

According to city and state reports, the city's Waste Water Treatment Plant on Frederick Street has spilled partially treated wastewater into the creek at least eight times this year, four times topping the 1 million gallon mark.

Breichner said the city likely is facing an $8,000 fine as a result of the consent agreement between the city and MDE, and will have to create more oversight over the city's plans to rehabilitate the plant.

Breichner, who said he has seen an early copy of the agreement, said he did not think the agreement would limit new housing development, which city officials see as important to the economic welfare of the city.

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