Harford County resident Kim Watters didn’t mince words during a state-organized meeting for Mountain Christian Church’s proposal to build its own private wastewater treatment plant.
Watters said church and state officials “want to kill” the aquatic life in a tributary of Little Gunpowder Falls that would be affected by the facility. She was among the more than 50 residents who filled the standing-room-only space of the Harford County Public Library in Joppa.
“We don’t want it,” Watters said at the July 2 meeting.
Such comments come at a crucial juncture for the church’s proposed facility at 1824 Mountain Road in Joppa in Harford County. The new plant would replace the church’s existing — and failing — septic system and support a planned expansion on its 70-acre campus.
The church must first receive state approval to build the new wastewater plant. Some nearby residents, however, said they’re concerned about a lack of information about the proposed facility. Republican Baltimore County Councilman David Marks is backing them up.
“When we found out about it, we were concerned that Baltimore County had no advance notice of this,” said Marks, of Perry Hall. “Communities in Kingsville had no input.”
On August 5, the Baltimore County Council is scheduled to vote on whether to oppose the church’s wastewater discharge permit. If a permit is granted, the council resolution asks that the church meet a higher water quality standard.
Mountain Christian Church has 5,400 members and its website states the church has expanded several times since establishing the house of worship on Mountain Road in 1847. The church says it needs the wastewater plant to expand capacity and replace its current state-approved septic system.
State documents show the proposed facility would replace the current facility with a pipe system that discharges 2,400 to 4,999 gallons of treated wastewater daily into an unnamed tributary of Little Gunpowder Falls in Baltimore County, which, eventually, flows past the popular swimming beach at Gunpowder Falls State Park.
Opposition to the proposal prompted the church to issue a June 24 statement on its website and Facebook page in an effort to “diffuse confusion and assuage concern.” The church statement stressed the proposed plant would not discharge sewage into the Gunpowder River or mistreat the environment.
Mountain Christian Church executive pastor Luke Erickson said the church cannot tie its system into a public sewer system because Harford County’s sewer line doesn’t come near the campus. It would be “outstanding” if the county could expand its sewer line to the church, but Erickson said there’s no sign of that happening.
The Maryland Department of the Environment identified “alleged violations” of state environmental laws with the current septic system in a June 28th letter to the church. State officials wrote the church’s septic system “is in significant non-compliance” with the requirements of their existing groundwater discharge permit. State environment officials said they were discharging too much wastewater, and reports from January 2015 through June 2019 indicate wastewater exceeded limits for several measured components.
A Harford County Health Department official visited the facility on Feb.13 and found “a restrictive clay layer” had formed in the facility’s pretreatment system, and sewage had pooled on the surface of the septic system. The church has also failed to submit “several” monitoring reports to the state, the document stated.
“The combined evidence indicates the system is failing or has failed,” the Department of Environment letter said.
The church could be charged up to $10,000 a day for each violation, the document stated, and has been asked to submit a plan to fix the system. Environment department spokesman Jay Apperson said the facility is under “an ongoing investigation.”
Erickson said the church is responding “immediately” to the existing septic system violations. “We’re monitoring that and doing whatever we need to do to make sure that it’s functioning like it needs to be,” the pastor said.
But for the long run, the church has proposed building the treatment facility. And the Harford County Council unanimously voted to update the county’s water and sewer master plan to include the church’s proposed wastewater facility.
The Little Gunpowder Falls stream affected by the proposed facility is home to trout and used for swimming and other recreational activities, according to state officials. The state has stressed wastewater systems are regulated to protect water resources and water quality by state and federal limits on what can be discharged and by monitoring and reporting requirements.
The church’s proposed permit appears to meet those requirements, said Carsten Prasse, a Johns Hopkins University environmental health and engineering professor. The proposal features “a pretty extensive monitoring program” for different compounds and nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, which can both cause algae growth, Prasse said in an interview.
Monitoring those nutrients is “critical,” Prasse said, because some algae consume and deplete oxygen in the water, which basically kills any of the fish living in that water. Prasse nonetheless stressed the proposed facility would be a positive upgrade from the church’s current system.
“They’re upgrading to match the newest regulatory requirements that are given by the county,” Prasse said.
Even so, some residents are skeptical about the state’s ability to monitor the proposed wastewater plant when the church’s current system is already in violation.
Marks’ proposed Baltimore County Council resolution asks the state environment department to deny the permit request, or at least require a strong “Enhanced Nutrient Removal process.” Marks said enhanced nutrient removal would clean the wastewater even more than already proposed in the draft permit.
“When we found out about it, we were concerned that Baltimore County had no advance notice of this."
Baltimore County Councilman David Marks
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Robert Kershner, president of the Innovative Treatment Products company, which the church has hired to help build the plant, said the new facility would cost the church close to $500,000 and would be more advanced and have greater capacity than the current system.
Elizabeth Shrader, a physical sciences professor whose children often play in the affected stream, told state officials to study the current state of the stream before they decide on the church’s proposal. Two residents at the meeting said they were in favor of the proposal, but most residents spoke in opposition.
“The neighbors are horrified,” said one unidentified woman. “We don’t see it as safe. You’re dumping right into the top of our neighborhood.”
State environmental officials say the church needs to meet some requirements before they approve the new plant: temperature limits on the discharge, no chlorine in the treatment system and regular monitoring and monthly state reports. And the church is required to give the state 180 days notice before exceeding the proposed 2,400 gallon daily limit on treated wastewater discharge.
The state is currently putting the proposal through a public input process before deciding the wastewater plant’s fate. A second informational meeting for the proposal is scheduled for July 16 at the Baltimore County Public Library Perry Hall branch. Maryland has also extended the public comment period to August 2, according to Environment Department spokesman Jay Apperson.
“The Maryland Department of the Environment values and appreciates public participation, and we have extended the comment period for this permit application and scheduled an additional informational meeting. We look forward to receiving comments and will consider them in making our final decision on the application,” Apperson said.