Septic waste treatment plant remains idle while fees are calculated


A $1.9 million county treatment facility for septic waste has been ready to operate for four months but remains idle while the county commissioners try to decide how to calculate fees that private haulers will pay to use it.

Neither the county government nor local septic waste haulers are eager to see the facility open. The commissioners are trying to find a cheaper alternative to spending $40,000 to $50,000 for scales to weigh septic waste loads, the most recent proposal for determining user fees.

Cost of the scales might have been covered by state or federal grants if the commissioners had acted earlier, says Thomas B. Beyard, Westminster city public works and planning director. Under a 1987 agreement, the city built the facility and will operate it at county expense.

The commissioners plan to recoup operating costs through user fees. Haulers criticize the treatment facility as inadequate and poorly designed; they say a proposed 9-cents-per-gallon fee will be a disaster.

The facility is needed to comply with a state government order to halt all land application of untreated septic tank wastes.

Carroll County is eight months past the Dec. 31 deadline, but the Maryland Department of the Environment has allowed haulers with land application permits to continue spreading the wastes on fields until the treatment unit opens.

Haulers without land application permits must dispose of the wastes elsewhere.

Some admit privately that they take wastes pumped in Carroll County to Baltimore County disposal sites, a violation of that county's policy that could cost them the right to operate in Baltimore County or a fine up to $1,000, although the likelihood of getting caught is small.

Baltimore County officials are aware of the practice, said William J. Herberich, chief of the Bureau of Utilities. But many local haulers operate in both counties, and septic tank wastes from Carroll County look identical on the truck to wastes from Baltimore County, he points out.

Opening the Carroll facility would eliminate the need to skirt regulations, but some haulers say the cost difference will drive operators to continue using Baltimore County.

Baltimore City, which operates the sewage treatment plants in Baltimore County, charges septic waste haulers 2 cents a gallon, 7 cents less than Carroll's proposed charge. Vanessa Pyatt, Baltimore public works spokesman, could not be reached Monday or yesterday for information on how the city calculates the fee.

Carroll County's proposed charge is based on Westminster operating cost estimates. Nine cents a gallon "was just the best estimate the city and county could come up with, without having an operating track record," says Mr. Beyard. "We hope it'll be lower, but I don't think anyone can say that right now."

In June, the commissioners asked County Attorney Charles W. Thompson to find out if they could use a cheaper alternative suggested by one hauler, basing fees on truck gauges that measure loads in fourths.

Mr. Thompson says he learned last week that the truck gauge won't meet state weights and measures law requirements. He now plans to seek ideas on alternatives from the state Department of Agriculture.

George Walsh, owner of Walsh Septic Tank and Dry Well Cleaning Service, says the 9 cent charge will raise septic tank cleaning costs from a current average of $90-$100 to $160-$180. He fears a loss of business as customers put off having their tanks cleaned.

Mr. Walsh predicts that the fee will drive haulers away from the new facility.

"Carroll County's never going to get enough money there at the new site to pay their bills, to operate it. Then the 9 cents a gallon is going to be even higher," he says.

Mr. Walsh says the haulers anticipated paying 3 or 4 cents a gallon at the new facility.

He also says the facility, which can treat an average 26,000 gallons a day, is inadequate.

"A lot of days, I haul that much myself," Mr. Walsh says.

Helen M. Spinelli, a county planner who has worked with the facility since December 1990, says the capacity was apparently based on a 1981 Health Department survey.

"When they designed the facility, I don't think anyone updated the study," she says.

Commissioner Elmer Lippy says if it weren't for the state mandate, he would favor continuing land application. But he sees a silver lining.

"I understand that it's going to be a hardship for a lot of people, but it might work the other way," he says. "It might encourage people to get their septic tanks repaired" so the tanks need less frequent pumping.

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