After years of legal battles, Carroll County has won approval to increase the discharge from its Hampstead wastewater treatment plant - but only if it keeps the effluent from getting too warm.
The decision, from the Maryland Department of the Environment, raises the possibility that the county could have to spend millions of dollars to chill the discharge to the required 68 degrees.
The effluent exceeds those temperatures during the hottest months of the year, many from both sides of the dispute agree.
The ruling - issued Tuesday by A. Katherine Hart, "final decision maker" for the MDE, and made public yesterday - grants the county a permit to move ahead with plans to increase the plant's daily discharge from 500,000 to 900,000 gallons.
It also requires the county to monitor the normal temperature of Piney Run, a stream whose name changes to Western Run in Baltimore County.
"The county gets its increase, but it may have to cool [the effluent] during the summer months," said Nancy Young, assistant attorney general for Maryland.
She said the county would be subject to fines of as much as $50,000 if it violates the temperature limits.
The plant, which began operating near Hampstead in 1975, has sparked a bitter battle between Carroll County officials, who want to serve the growing Route 30 corridor with water and sewer facilities, and Baltimore County residents in the rural communities east of the plant, who say the effluent adversely affects the stream. Carroll has been entangled in three lawsuits with the Baltimore County-based Piney Run Preservation Association for the past eight years.
A federal judge said the discharges violated the Clean Water Act and fined the county $400,000.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision two years ago.
An attorney for the preservation group called the decision a victory yesterday.
Carroll County "cannot discharge hot water with impunity," said G. Macy Nelson, attorney for the group.
To meet the temperature limit, the county might have to add cooling equipment, estimated to cost more than $1 million to install and several hundred thousand dollars in annual operating expenses.
"It would add significantly to the costs of running the plant," said Douglas Myers, county director of public works, who added that the county reviewed the possibility of "chillers" several years ago but discarded the concept as impractical and costly.
Nelson said, "Now, they have no choice."
The Hampstead Wastewater Treatment Plant has changed Piney Run from a clear, gentle stream to a murky, polluted torrent, Baltimore County residents have said.
And, they add, wildlife and property values have been harmed.
The plant has had "no negative impact" on trout living in the stream, the decision said. Fish are flourishing, according to a 2000 report from the state Department of Natural Resources, which showed that numbers of brown trout in the stream had increased "exponentially" in recent years.
The MDE is not specifically requiring cooling equipment to meet the temperature standards, said Linda Woolf, an attorney hired by the county to handle the lawsuit.
"There will be no change in the operation of the plant in the immediate future," Woolf said. "Temperature is only an issue for a few hours at night in the hottest months of summer. Should the county spend more than $1 million to lower the temperature at night? That may not be all that rational."
Woolf said she would meet with county officials soon to discuss an appeal. The county could choose to ask for a stay of the permit within 30 days, Woolf said, adding that the county has several grounds for an appeal.
Kimberly Millender, county attorney, said yesterday that she has not seen the decision but that the plant will continue to operate under its current permit.