Forest Hill school wants hookup to public water

The Baltimore Sun

Education officials, staff and parents at a northern Harford elementary school coping with contaminated wells are asking for a connection to nearby public water lines.

Trace amounts of MTBE (methyl tertiary butyl ether), a gasoline additive, were detected in the two private wells at Forest Hill Elementary School in 2005. By the spring of last year, tests showed the levels had risen to 13.6 parts per billion, a level still considered safe by federal standards, but one that prompted the school to use bottled water. Testing shows continued MTBE contamination of the well water.

"This is a legitimate request based on public safety and service," said Thomas Fidler, president of the Harford County Board of Education. "Bottled water and hand-washing stations encumber education."

Concentrations of MTBE are testing below the limit of 20 to 40 parts per billion set as a safety threshold by the Environmental Protection Agency. But school officials have shut down the school's water fountains, brought water coolers into the classrooms and installed filtration tanks to clean the water as it comes into the building, which opened in 2000.

The nearly 600 children who attend the school are also allowed to bring bottled water to school or purchase it in the cafeteria.

"The board erred on the side of caution for the safety of our children," said Principal Belinda A. Cole. "Hydration is important to keeping kids stimulated and learning."

Costs incurred in connecting the school, on Rocks Road near Jarrettsville Road, might ultimately be reimbursed by the party responsible for the MTBE leak, Fidler said. As yet, officials have been unable to determine the source of the contamination.

"It has not been established where MTBE originated or how it got into our system," Cole said.

Public water lines are within a few hundred yards of the school. When the school was built seven years ago, the contractor included pipes for an eventual hookup. But county officials are hesitant because of the school's location outside Harford's designated growth area. Extending public utilities beyond where they are available to development creates a problem, officials said.

"If we make public water available, it will stir up all kinds of issues," said Jacqueline K. Ludwig, chief of administration and engineering for Harford's Department of Public Works.

Rather than "step on a lot of development regulations," Ludwig said, the on-site carbon filtration system is the most economical way to handle the contamination at the school.

"If there is adequate, on-site treatment that does the job effectively, it is preferable to extending water lines," Ludwig said.

Parents and staff have argued that public water is a far better, less costly long-term solution than a filtration system that has to be monitored and serviced, Cole said.

"As taxpayers, our parents are disappointed that this has not happened," Cole said. "We are already piped for public water. It is just a matter of connecting us in what would be a one-time exception. This really is a slam-dunk, but politics is getting in the way of common sense."

Michele Catterton, PTA president, said parents absolutely want public water in the school.

"This is affecting everyone and using money that could go to other older schools," Catterton said. "If taxpayers knew how much money is being spent on water, they would support us."

Most County Council members are reluctant to make the school an exception.

"This is a dangerous precedent, to extend water lines outside the development envelope," said Councilman Chad R. Shrodes, who represents the area. "What is next? Open up the gates to northern, more rural areas of the county? This would give adjacent landowners leeway."

The fear is that once lines are extended, a private school, a church or a shopping center might make the same request.

"You do open the door to service, and other institutions might come into play," said Council President Billy Boniface.

Councilman Dion Guthrie offered an example of what can happen once public lines are extended in a rural area: The county made an exception several years ago and connected the new Fallston General Hospital near U.S. 1 to its system. The hospital eventually closed and was razed.

"Today, there are 103 townhomes where Fallston General Hospital used to be," Guthrie said.

Ludwig said, "Not many people thought the hospital would close down, but it did - and that could happen with a school, too. If a school with public water closes down, whatever new is built on the site has the right to use the water that serves the property."

But Councilman Richard C. Slutzky argued for "finding a way through the labyrinth" of regulations to make an exception for a school that stands near a public utility.

"Isolating a public school is different," Slutzky said.

If the council needed further convincing, Fidler suggested members convene at a PTA meeting at Forest Hill and confront about 800 angry parents. Catterton said several parents plan to address the council.

"We need parents to go nag officials," she said. "It's the only way we will get this done."

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