Advertisement

It flows downhill: Harford church wastewater project shows flaws in state approval process

It flows downhill: Harford church wastewater project shows flaws in state approval process
Mountain Christian Church's application to build a wastewater treatment plant on its campus near the Harford/Baltimore County line has drawn opposition from neighbors, environmentalists and the Baltimore County Council. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

The Baltimore County Council’s unanimous resolution opposing a wastewater treatment plant permit for a Harford County church is throwing a late wrench in a process that’s been going on for two years — and that’s the fault of the process, not of the council. The plan to deal with Mountain Christian Church’s failing septic system calls for an average of 2,400 gallons per day of treated wastewater to be piped into stream that empties into the Little Gunpowder Falls right at the Jericho covered bridge, arguably affecting Baltimore County more than Harford. Yet it wasn’t until this summer that the proposal came to the attention of Baltimore County leaders, more than a year after Harford’s council voted unanimously on a master plan change to allow the project to move forward. The proposal was publicly advertised as required, but as Baltimore County Councilman David Marks noted of himself and his colleagues, “we don’t read the Aegis.”

Mountain Christian Church, which has more than 5,000 members, has sought to calm critics by arguing that the system it plans to install uses state-of-the-art technology to provide a much more environmentally sound system for disposing waste than it has now. (Though that may not be saying much, as the Maryland Department of the Environment this spring found that the existing septic system is in violation of state pollution standards.) MDE has also concluded that the proposal would significantly reduce nitrogen and phosphorous discharge from the church property. An MDE presentation on the plan concludes that it “is the strongest and most protective discharge permit (dissolved oxygen, nutrients and temperature) we have ever considered for a flow this size” and “the most advanced wastewater treatment technology ever proposed for a facility of this size.”

Advertisement

Still, not everyone is convinced that the treatment plant is the only or best way to handle the church’s wastewater needs. The proposal has generated significant opposition from residents on both sides of the Baltimore-Harford County line, and the Gunpowder Riverkeeper has presented detailed critiques of it, arguing that even the relatively small amount of treated wastewater the project would generate poses environmental risks. Among other concerns, the riverkeeper, Theaux M. Le Gardeur, notes the tributary the system would discharge into empties into part of the Little Gunpowder that is a popular recreational area where the water quality is already threatened. Furthermore, the tributary is an intermittent stream, meaning it does not flow year-round but is dry in certain seasons and under certain conditions. Introducing wastewater into the system, no matter how well it’s treated, could upset the ecosystem’s balance, he said. State regulations forbid a direct discharge of this type into an intermittent stream unless all other options have been considered, and Mr. Le Gardeur argues that they haven’t been. On top of those technical concerns is a more fundamental one: neighbors ask how much they can trust the church, Harford officials and state regulators given the failing state of the existing system.

A spokesman for MDE says the agency has made no decision yet and will consider the public comments about the project in an effort to make “the most environmentally protective and responsible decision possible.”

At the very least, the state should heed Baltimore County’s call for even stricter pollution and monitoring requirements — but only after more conclusively demonstrating that no on-site disposal options are possible. We appreciate that the church is willing to invest significantly (an estimated $500,000) in this project, and we’re sure it has no intention of doing harm to the Gunpowder. But the ecosystem in that part of Baltimore and Harford counties is simply too valuable to take any chances.

There’s a bigger lesson here, though. Baltimore County was clearly going to be impacted by this project just as much as Harford County, yet the state’s approval process included no formal role for its elected officials. That needs to change. The Baltimore County Council is absolutely right — the General Assembly needs to create stronger notification requirements for projects like this near a jurisdictional border. After all, water has a funny habit of moving from one place to another regardless of what lines we draw on a map.

Advertisement
Advertisement