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Neighbors across Mason-Dixon split over smelly sewer problem


Sometimes, it stinks in Cardiff.

It stinks in Whiteford, too. And in Delta, Pa.

The three tiny towns once shared fame for the rich lode of Peach Bottom Slate in the ridge that stretches from Harford County into Pennsylvania.

Now, they share an odor.

"You can walk the sidewalk in Cardiff sometimes," said Delta resident Ruth Ann Robinson, "and the odor is just about enough to make you sick to your stomach."

The smell is no mystery. Raw sewage runs through the streets of the Whiteford and Cardiff. Many weary-looking Victorian homes in the towns have their plumbing connected to gutters and underground slate-lined ditches that carry raw sewage downhill into Scott Creek, a tributary of the Susquehanna River.

Harford's health department has known about it for years. So has the Maryland Department of the Environment. "Everybody knows it," said David Smith, part owner of Tom's Superthrift in Cardiff.

"It is a strong belief of this department that the ground water is at high risk for contamination," a 1991 Harford health department report concluded. "The area is a potential health hazard waiting for the right conditions, which could result in a disease outbreak. Time can only add to that risk."

All told, the report said, 70 percent of septic systems in Cardiff and 50 percent in Whiteford were failing, inadequate or suspect.

It's not an imminent health threat, said John Lamb, director of environmental health for Harford, but the health department considers the sewage problem serious.

It's a vexing problem for Cardiff, Whiteford and Delta, but it's one they share with hundreds of other rural communities across the country. They now face an expensive cleanup at a time when money for such projects is dwindling.

Tonight, at North Harford High School, property owners from Cardiff and Whiteford will discuss plans for construction of a sewage treatment plant in Delta that everyone would have to connect to. Maryland's cost would be $5.9 million.

Obtaining funding will be difficult, said Roger L. Persons, an administrator with the Rural Economic and Community Development agency, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that provides money for such projects.

In Maryland alone, there are 40 other rural sewage and water projects, totally roughly $70 million, competing for roughly $8 million in federal funds, Mr. Persons said.

Even though Cardiff, Whiteford and Delta have known they've had a sewage problem for 30 years, only recently have they confronted it seriously. And that has created some tension between the Pennsylvanians and the Marylanders -- where once none existed.

That's because Delta residents are being forced, by their state government, to build the expensive sewage treatment plant, while Marylanders are not.

If Whiteford and Cardiff do not join Delta in building a common sewage treatment plant, some residents fear they could be sued by Pennsylvania for continuing to pollute Scott Creek, be forced to move out of their homes because of failing sewage systems, or end up paying a lot more to fix the problem later on.

"The EPA is going to have a hernia if we're polluting the streams of Pennsylvania -- and justly so," said Dr. Thomas Sutor, the pharmacist at Whiteford Pharmacy. "We more than need it. We've got to have it. . . . It has to be done. It's that simple."

A hundred years ago, the last thing on anyone's mind was a sewage problem.

The three towns were in the midst of a roaring boom, fueled by something they had that the rest of the world wanted: rich, black slate.

First mined in 1734, Peach Bottom Slate was world-famous for its color and durability. At one time, it made for the best, longest-lasting roof. It was used on buildings at West Point, the Naval Academy and Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Skilled Welshmen were drawn to the towns in the 1850s to work the slate quarries at the top of the ridge, and to gently split the rock into thin shingles.

By the 1880s, when Delta became an incorporated borough, the bustling communities had several hotels, numerous churches, restaurants, a hardware store, a minor league baseball team and stops on the Maryland & Pennsylvania Railroad. But slate declined as newer, cheaper roofing materials came along in the 1920s and 1930s.

And later, as residents installed modern plumbing in their houses, many connected to those underground slate ditches, which, as best anyone can tell, were dug to drain ground water from quarries at the top of the ridge.

They still exist, but no one knows where they are.

"Those blind ditches have basically been able to keep [the problem] out of mind, rather than out of fact," said Jerald Wheeler, deputy director of Harford County's water and sewer department. "They have hidden the problem."

Mervyn G. Thompson, 71, is a retired Harford zoning inspector who has lived in the Cardiff and Whiteford area all of his life. He remembers seeing some of the slate ditches years ago. But on a recent two-hour hunt through all three towns, down side streets, through thick weeds, not one slate-lined ditch was found.

"I have seen them," he said. "But not lately."

The meeting of Cardiff and Whiteford property owners is at 7 p.m. today at North Harford High School, 211 Pylesville Road, in Pylesville.

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