The state Department of the Environment says it intends to deny a permit application for a controversial sludge-drying operation in northern Harford County if the operator does not withdraw the application and submit a new one.
The operation, Chesapeake Resource Reclamation Center in Whiteford, is seeking a state groundwater-discharge permit to continue accepting "alum" sludge, a waste product generated when municipal water-treatment plants use an aluminum compound to remove solids from untreated water.
Residents near the 40-acre site at Dooley Road and Route 165 contend that potentially hazardous amounts of aluminum are getting into their drinking-water wells. But officials at the environment department say the alleged aluminum hazard is not a reason to deny the application.
"We're not saying that an alum sludge-drying facility can't be constructed and operated safely in Maryland," John Goheen, a spokesman for the department, said last week. "The application before us right now does not reflect the physical characteristics of the operation," he said.
As a result, he said, the department has asked Chesapeake to change the application. If it does not do so, the department said, the state will deny the application.
Mr. Goheen said he could not provide details about how the application was deficient. But Herbert H. Martello, organizer of the Mason-Dixon Safe Water Awareness Team, said his group was told that Chesapeake's drying pits were too deep, among other things.
Chesapeake, the only private alum sludge-drying operation in Maryland, is owned and operated by Farrell D. "Nick" Whiteford, a director of the Forest Hill Bank.
The drying site, which has been operating under an interim state permit, consists of unlined evaporation pits. Until June, the last time sludge was delivered to the site, Chesapeake accepted about 8 million gallons of alum sludge over two years from treatment plants serving Reading and Mechanicsburg in Pennsylvania and the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford.
Mr. Whiteford and officials at the environment department say the aluminum residents fear has leached into their wells from the sludge site is naturally occurring -- not from the Chesapeake operation.
But the residents, who are conducting tests of wells with the state, claim medical research has linked aluminum to many ailments, including Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease and Lou Gehrig's disease.
"The state feels that we have nothing to worry about as far as aluminum levels," said Mr. Martello. He said the department has known for a year that the application was deficient.
Thomas E. Marshall, an attorney for Mr. Whiteford, said his client was "obviously disturbed" with the ruling.
"If they want to deny [the permit application], let them deny it," he said.
He said his client intended to appeal the ruling through the environment department.