An Inside Look At Ocean City’s Wastewater Plant

OCEAN CITY – The stench was thankfully understated, but after touring Ocean City’s wastewater treatment plant, it could be the facility itself that is the most thanklessly underrated.

There are many aspects of how a town’s infrastructure operates that are often left beneath the surface or behind closed doors, as for every flashy amenity that people gravitate towards, like a beach and a Boardwalk for instance, there is a vast network of intangibles that need to work at the highest of levels in order to keep things running smoothly and people from complaining. Admittedly, in this instance, the less people have to think about wastewater when they flush their toilet while in Ocean City, the better.

If touring a city’s garbage treatment plant could be likened to “talking trash,” then touring a city’s wastewater facility would be a similar, but a bit more vulgar analogy. But in all seriousness, City Manager Dennis Dare has long called the wastewater treatment facility “one of the most vital components to the town of Ocean City” and in lieu of the town’s recent move to condemn and seize the land that neighbors the 65th Street public works compound to the east from local businessman Rick Laws, The Dispatch thought it would be prudent to tour the facility and see just how necessary any future expansion of the wastewater treatment plant is, or at the very least, understand the process.

Perhaps in seeing up close and personal the daily operations of the town’s wastewater treatment process, it would be revealed why Laws’ property, which used to be the home of the 65th Street Slide-n-Ride, is a must have in the minds of the town’s elite.

First off, it’s notable that the 14 millions gallons of wastewater that the town treats on a daily basis is done in a facility that is vastly smaller than even neighboring municipalities.

“Salisbury, for instance, has a treatment facility that sits on probably 30 acres of land whereas we have about 3 to 4 acres,” said Dare. “We also have to be able to ramp up the amount of wastewater we can treat in the summer months versus what we can easily manage the rest of the year. It would be very difficult to find another municipality that has a facility that runs like ours and deals with the things we deal with.”

If one were to get the overhead viewpoint of the facility itself and Laws’ property that abuts the facility, it is clear why the town is so keen on acquiring the land as extending its footprint, rather than creating a new one, seems to be the least costly and most efficient.

Dare says that taxpayers and visitors don’t realize and appreciate how rare it is to have almost 80 percent of the town’s governmental operations run out of a single complex.

“If the only option was to go north, then we’d have to tear down the service shop and the warehouse to build on to the wastewater facility, and then where are we going to put those, because there’s no more room on this site,” said Dare. “Land has gotten so scarce and expensive in Ocean City that we would have to buy something across the bridge. So if you have to get a headlight on an ambulance serviced, you would have to go across the bridge to West Ocean City rather than just 50 feet away to the shop right here on 65th Street. The way we run things is far more efficient and cost effective to tax payers, and I just don’t think a lot of people appreciate it.”

The town bought the land, which used to be home to Playland Amusements, where the public works compound now sits for just over $1 million in 1980, but Dare said the facility’s worth is miles ahead of what they got the land for back then.

Some of the buildings on the lot, such as the pole barns, which keep the buses, snowplows, and other big town machinery out of the elements, have been there since the 1960s, but the majority of the complex has been there since 1984.

“From a dollar standpoint, if you wanted to rebuild this facility it would cost in excess of $100 million,” said Dare. “The actual wastewater facility takes up more than half of this entire complex, and if we want to continue run at a highly efficient level and prepare for future growth to this town, we need to plan ahead for growing this facility.”

The millions of gallons of wastewater come in through one pipeline and exit through a pipeline almost a mile out into the Atlantic Ocean.

The path that the wastewater embarks on while it’s in the facility in order to change it from the waste back into water is a complex maze of underground pipes, a mirage of toxic chemicals, state-of-the-art machinery and scientific testing that meets and in many cases exceeds state regulations. In fact, other municipalities bring samples of their water and wastewater to Ocean City to test in the town’s laboratories.

“The chlorinate to disinfect and then we use another highly toxic chemical [sulfur dioxide] to remove the chlorine from the water so we can pump it back out into the ocean and comply with the laws,” said Assistant Public Works Director Jim Parsons.

Dare also noted that people don’t understand the large scope of the plant, as it is not only the town’s biggest user of electricity but it’s also one of the costliest, as just this week, bids were announced for a half a million dollar wastewater chemical purchase.

“This place is basically the most important element to tourism because we are discharging the treated water into our ocean a mile off the coast so that’s why we need to have backups to the backups so it runs properly,” said Dare.

Many people in the town have speculated that the town simply wants to expand the facility by acquiring Laws’ property, but Dare says it’s not that simple.

“Capacity wise we are probably fine, but capacity isn’t the issue, it’s the processes that are going to change, and a lot of that centers around permits and what the state of Maryland says we have to do. We want to make sure we can meet those because there are a lot of requirements coming down from the Chesapeake Bay, and even though we are discharging into the ocean, we may have to comply,” Dare said.

Though the vast majority of people will never see and more than likely will never care to see what goes on in the town’s wastewater facility, Dare says that his task is to think about the future for the town of Ocean City, and that includes some of the less appealing parts of the town, such as what happens to the water when it flushes, and more importantly, what condition it’s in when it goes back into the ocean.

“When the next requirement comes, and it’s not if, it’s when, you don’t take something out and put a new thing in,” Parsons said. “You build on to it, so keeping in mind that we are already crammed into a small piece of land, we will need what’s next door.”

For the record, Laws’ 80,000-plus-square-foot property in question has reportedly appraised for just over $3 million.