Passing the buck on Mountain Christian treatment plant [Editorial]

The Aegis

A proposal by Mountain Christian Church to build an on-site, privately operated sewage treatment facility to support the expansion of its Joppa campus is fraught with the kind of environmental concerns that at one time in Harford County would have set political alarm bells sounding.

That was then, however, and this is 2018, and recently the County Council and county administration signed off on the Mountain Christian proposal with nary a word of concern, declaring it’s up to the Maryland Department of the Environment to decide whether to issue the necessary permit for the plant to discharge its treated waste into a tributary of the Little Gunpowder Falls.

The proposed wastewater treatment plant would replace the church’s existing septic system, and it’s pretty clear without the plant, the church won’t be able to expand beyond its already sizable footprint along Route 152. Either way, the discharge, from the existing septic or a presumably higher level of treatment for the proposed plant, could be up to 5,000 gallons of wastewater at peak use.

There’s a bigger issue, however, one that has hovered over the Fallston and Joppa areas for more than four decades, namely how much growth can and should be permitted without adequate public water and sewer facilities?

Building a small sewage treatment plant that would ultimately dump into the Little Gunpowder in this area of the county is not unprecedented. The county and state agreed to allow such a facility to serve the now-defunct Fallston General Hospital when it was built in the mid-1970s and, later, that plant facilitated the development of what was then called Fallston Mall — now Fallston Village Center. Eventually, however, county officials knew they had to have a better way of disposing of waste in the Route 1 corridor between Bel Air and Route 152, so they built a sewer line from Bel Air and paid for it with assessments from mostly commercial property owners.

Of course, building the sewer line – and a parallel water line – had the expected effect of more development. Today, there are no public water and sewer lines near the Mountain Christian property, but some day there could be, just as happened with the Route 1 area. We would add at this juncture that Fallston High and Middle schools are served by an onsite sewage treatment plant that discharges into a tributary of Winters Run, and we suspect the day will come when pressure will come to bear to bring public water and sewer north to that campus.

The Harford County Council voted unanimously during its May 1 meeting to update the water and sewer master plan to permit the proposed Mountain Christian sewer plant, even though several people who spoke at a public hearing expressed concern about having a lack of information about the proposed treatment facility and a lack of time to give input.

“It seems like we don’t really know anything about this, and it seems to me it would be strange to approve it when we really don’t know what’s happening,” Barbara Risacher, a Joppatowne resident and president of the Joppa Development and Heritage Corporation.

Council members, however, stressed their vote is just the start of the process, and MDE has the responsibility to facilitate public input and has the regulatory and enforcement authority over the church’s system.

“Our approval is only to move this to the Maryland Department of the Environment,” Council President Richard Slutzky said.

Meanwhile, Councilman Mike Perrone, who represents Joppa, opined it was not the council’s place to pre-empt the MDE’s discretion to issue the permit or to “make for a higher hurdle” by presuming the agency will not conduct proper enforcement.

Exactly. Leave it up to the state bureaucrats to set policy that will ultimately impact how Harford County grows.

That’s a horrendous position to take. Unfortunately, our county elected officials either don’t understand or can’t comprehend that such an abrogation of responsibility could eventually have deleterious unintended consequences, not just for the environment, but for the overall quality of life along the west side of the county.

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