Paul Page, a Bark Hill community water system customer, says his drinking water tastes so salty, "I feel like I'm at the ocean."
And nitrate levels in the water exceeded permitted levels in tests June 19 and 22, posing a possible threat to infants.
County officials blame the taste on salt that is being added to the water to bring the nitrate levels down. This is the first time nitrates have exceeded permitted levels since July 1994.
But the Maryland Department of the Environment says the treated water shouldn't be salty.
"Normally, when you treat for nitrates, the water's not salty," said John Grace, head of the Department of Environment division that monitors public drinking water systems. "What we have to investigate is why it is."
Mr. Grace declined to speculate on whether the Bark Hill problem might be caused by high levels of natural salt in the ground water or by mistakes made by the county's Bureau of Utilities, which operates the system. The county-owned community water system has about 50 customers.
Nitrates are not usually a problem for adults. Mr. Grace said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sets a standard for nitrates in drinking water to protect infants. In the digestive systems of babies under 6 months of age, nitrates can be converted to a substance that combines with hemoglobin to reduce the blood's ability to carry oxygen.
Asked to put himself in a Bark Hill customer's shoes, Mr. Grace said, "If I were the parent of a young child and I was feeding him formula, I'd probably be a little concerned. I'd probably be using bottled water [for the baby]."
County public works director J. Michael Evans said the county must put enough salt in the Bark Hill water to ensure that nitrates are removed. If it doesn't, "Instead of unhappy citizens with the drinking water, you have an unhappy state agency with the nitrate levels," he said.
Mr. Page, of Star Court, lobbied for the community water system after bacteria made the area's well water unsafe to drink. He said he is happy to have the public water supply.
But he said he was prompted to start buying bottled water for a daughter who has Down syndrome and is in poor health by reports that the public water's nitrate levels were above EPA standards.
The county spent about $305,000 to build the system after wells in the area were contaminated by pollutants traced to failing septic systems in the Keyview Estates subdivision. The Bark Hill community water system, in operation for two years, tested above acceptable nitrate standards July 1994.
"The area has high nitrates. It's been farmed for centuries," Mr. Evans said, referring to nitrates in chemical fertilizers used by farmers.
He said the County Commissioners have asked their staff to do research on possible alternative treatments for the drinking water, including a filtration system called reverse osmosis. In reverse osmosis, water is forced through a membrane impermeable to nitrates.
Mr. Grace said that with salt treatment, untreated water goes into a filtration tank filled with resin beads that absorb nitrates and leave chloride. Plant operators occasionally have to stop the process to recharge the resin beads by flooding them with salt. The beads then must be rinsed, and the rinse water must be removed before treatment of the water can start again.
The Department of Environment has asked county officials for analyses to determine why the Bark Hill water tastes salty.
Vernon F. Smith, the support services director for the county school system, said if nitrate levels in the water exceed EPA standards at the start of the next school year, officials will provide bottled water to pregnant faculty members and students at Francis Scott Key High School, which is connected to the Bark Hill water system.
School officials provided bottled water at the school for years until the county installed the community system, Mr. Smith said.
"It's frustrating because we were optimistic" that the community system would eliminate water problems at the school, he said.