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City OKs smoky sewer tests

Metzner's worries ease over method used since '70s to deter leaks

Metzner's worries ease over method used since '70s to deter leaks

January 20, 2006|by DANIEL J. SERNOVITZ

daniels@herald-mail.com

The Hagerstown City Council gave the city permission to continue blowing smoke into residents' homes.

"I think, to just simply say we're not going to do this is, to a degree, being irresponsible," Councilman Kristin Aleshire said during Tuesday's council work session.

The city halted the practice of sending an odorless, smoke-type substance into residents' homes through their sewer systems last week after City Councilman Lew Metzner said he was worried about several components of the program, including resident privacy and financial issues.

Metzner said he was worried about the city asking people with heart and respiratory problems to leave their homes while the testing is in progress and obligating residents to spend several thousand dollars to correct problems the city finds while conducting its tests.

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Christopher Bordlemay, acting manager of the city's water and sewer department, said the city has used the practice since the 1970s.

He said it has been used to both detect faults in the city's infrastructure and to find illegal connections where storm-water runoff such as from roof drains flows into the city's sewer system and from there into its wastewater treatment plant.

"I think we have a responsibility to operate our system as best we can," Bordlemay said. "We do have to walk the fine line between what you're saying and what we have to do."

The city entered into a consent judgment with the Maryland Department of the Environment in January 2005 because of problems at the city's treatment plant, including system backups.

As part of the agreement, the city is required to complete a thorough study of its sewer system by Dec. 31, 2007, Bordlemay said. He said smoke testing is a vital part of that study because it helps the city identify and prevent excess water from being diverted into the plant.

"If we cannot continue to smoke test, we will not be able to complete the study (on our own)," Bordlemay said. "We're looking for general problems. We're not looking for individual, people problems. We're really looking for problems in our infrastructure."

Aleshire, who noted workers found a problem in his system that required him to pay $3,000 to fix, said despite Metzner's concerns, the city has a more pressing obligation to its citizens to ensure the city's wastewater treatment plant is functioning correctly.

He said eliminating the smoke tests, by consequence, would seriously hamper the city in its efforts to make sure the system is functioning properly.

Councilwoman Kelly Cromer equated the issue to the city's sidewalk inspections and argued residents are just as responsible for the upkeep of their sewer laterals, or pipes, as they are for their sidewalks. She echoed Bordlemay's sentiment that the smoke is not toxic and only can cause temporary irritation for residents exposed to it.

"I think the good outweighs the minuscule amount of bad," Cromer said.

Metzner said while he continues to have concerns about the program, he accepted Bordlemay's explanation for doing the tests and he yielded to council's desire to let Bordlemay continue the testing.

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