An $800,000 sewage treatment plant built five years ago at Francis Scott Key High School but never used has fallen into such disrepair that it is inoperable, county officials said yesterday.
Discussing a recent administrative law judge ruling that denied the county an operating permit for the plant, which was built illegally, county officials said that a routine maintenance check during the summer showed that even if a permit is issued, the plant would need hundreds of thousands of dollars in repairs before opening.
"We have lost a lawsuit and now the plant is starting to self-destruct," said county Public Works Director Douglas E. Myers, referring to the administrative law judge's ruling and the state of the facility.
Ray Prokop, director of facilities for the county school system, said the plant is "effectively useless with a lot of broken equipment. It is a dark cloud over our heads."
Having failed for several years to obtain a necessary operating permit, county officials said they would not appeal the administrative law judge's rejection of the county plan to discharge treated sewage from the plant into nearby wetlands. Officials said the county would explore other options, such as laying sewer pipelines to existing plants in Union Bridge or Taneytown.
The plant, part of a $16.3 million renovation to the school, has had problems from the outset.
The county had planned to allow treated sewage, known as effluent, to flow from the plant into two pools planted with vegetation. The effluent would seep into the wetland area bordering a tributary of Wolf Pit Branch.
"It is an environmentally friendly way to handle sewage, and we think over time the state will embrace this technology," said Steven Powell, the commissioners' chief of staff.
The Maryland Department of the Environment issued a draft permit for the plan five years ago. The county built the plant, but never obtained a construction permit.
"When we got the draft permit, we thought MDE was on board in terms of the technology," said Powell. "We thought everybody was on the same page, and we focused our efforts on developing the project. Now we have to re-evaluate our options."
Having failed to obtain a permit, the county hauls about 6,000 gallons of sewage daily from the school to the Westminster treatment plant. The cost is about $330 a day.
"This is a saga that just goes on and it is a terrible waste of money," said Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge. "Every day we are hauling sewage out of there, when we have a plant right there. "
In a ruling dated Aug. 26 but not obtained by the county until last week, Administrative Law Judge Nancy E. Paige denied the county an operating permit, ruling that the county must explore alternatives to the plant.
'No criteria developed'
"While the county is not required to explore every conceivable option, regardless of reasonableness, there were no criteria developed or expressed for choosing the options they did," Paige wrote in the 30-page opinion.
Richard J. McIntyre, spokesman for the Environment Department, said he had not seen the judge's ruling and would not comment on it. As for the plant's failure, he said, "MDE would not have any concerns for environmental impacts since this facility never opened."
During a routine maintenance check, a county worker discovered that one of the two filtration tanks embedded in the ground inside the plant had been pushed upward, damaging the ceiling, walls and much of the interior.
The elevated water table from the summer's heavy rains might have pushed the 6,000-gallon tank from its bed, Myers said.
Gouge said, "It happened with such force that it took part of the ceiling and one side of the building."
Some pipe work also is through the ceiling and the interior walkway is damaged, Myers said. "We no longer have a plant that is operable."
Prokop, the school system's director of facilities, said he is discussing the failure with the plant's designer.
The fact that the equipment has never been used might have caused the breakdown, Prokop said.
"If the system had been used, there would have been additional weight in the tank and this would not have occurred," he said.
Repairing the plant or laying sewer pipelines to existing plants in would require extensive, costly easements from property owners, who might be reluctant to allow the sewer lines, said Powell.
"We are not going to appeal the administrative judge's ruling," Powell said. "We are moving forward with our review of options, land issues, costs, feasibility. We have to solve this issue."
All the options have to take into account a lawsuit by John and Virginia Lovell, who are challenging the legality of the plant.
"We cannot discount whatever issues raised in the Lovells' suit in the ultimate long-term solution," said Kimberly Millender, county attorney. "We know it is out there and has to be taken into consideration."
The litigation and the need for a permit "drive what we are doing to solve the problem and decide which option to pursue," she said.
Powell said he expects to have a working plan to put before the commissioners in about a week.
"All we want to do is get the sewage away from the kids in school," said Commissioner Dean L. Minnich. "But look at all the hoops we have to jump through just to get a simple job done."