WEST OCEAN CITY — There is no clear answer for the growing problem of a failing county-owned wastewater disposal system gurgling treated effluent onto the property of a West Ocean City family and into the surrounding marshes, but Worcester officials this week agreed to explore the options.
When the VanVonno family bought a secluded island adjacent to the Mystic Harbor community in West Ocean City in August 2005 and built their home, it was aware the county owned and maintained an easement including 18 injection wells on the property. The injection wells take in treated wastewater from the nearby Mystic Harbor treatment plant, and as the name implies, literally injects the effluent into the soil.
When working properly, the wells inject wastewater treated to near drinking water quality into the soil gradually based on the amount of effluent the ground can take. However, the county’s 18 injection wells on the VanVonno property are frequently clogged and fail to work properly, often backing up with ponds on the property, flooding of the driveway and even into the sensitive marsh areas.
Attorney Hugh Cropper, who represents the family, appealed to the commissioners on Tuesday for relief, likely by moving the 18 wells off the island and back onto the Mystic Harbor treatment plant.
“They live on an isolated island and these wells are literally in their yard,” he said. “The wells back up and they have ponding on their property and at some points, there is effluent boiling out into the marsh. All this is happening in your Atlantic Coastal Bays Critical Area.”
Cropper said the homeowners knew about the county easement and the injection wells when they bought the property, but didn’t expect them to fail as they have.
“When they bought the property, they knew these wells were there,” he said. “We’re asking for any help you can give. You’re spending a lot of taxpayer money on this antiquated system that doesn’t work. It’s a mess for the VanVonnos and the property has depreciated. I think we need to explore ways to move those wells off that island.”
Moving the injection wells off the property would be complicated and likely expensive, even if it were permitted. Deputy Public Works Director John Ross, county guru for all things water and sewer related, said moving the wells could cost in the area of $250,000. Nonetheless, the current situation is not acceptable and a solution needs to be found sooner rather than later, according to Commissioner Bud Church, who represents the area and recently visited the property.
“What I saw was disturbing,” he said. “It’s not a little problem, it’s a major problem. This is an environmental issue that needs to be addressed today. There needs to be a solution. If we don’t address it now, it will become even a bigger problem.”
One solution is eliminating the injection wells on the VanVonno property and diverting the treated effluent to a future spray irrigation site at the Eagle’s Landing golf course. The county has an agreement with the Town of Ocean City to develop spray irrigation at Eagle’s Landing which is currently in the permit approval process with the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Ross explained once the approval is granted, the design work for the spray site at Eagle’s Landing could begin as soon as this summer with the actual spraying expected to start after the golf season. The county would not spray effluent on the golf course during the season and winter temperatures often curtail the process, so there is a rather tight window when effluent can be sprayed.
If the approval process hits a snag, the whole timetable could be pushed back again, putting the opportunity to move the effluent disposal from the VanVonno property to the golf course at risk. County Attorney Sonny Bloxom said when spray irrigation comes to fruition at Eagles’ Landing, the county will still need to maintain at least some injection wells.
“Even if we got spray irrigation tomorrow, the agreement with Ocean City is to maintain some capacity in injection wells,” he said.
Commissioner Merrill Lockfaw said whatever solution was deemed best, the time to act was now for the county.
“It’s time for the county to step up to the plate,” he said. “We can’t keep putting this off. We need to get something started on this today.”
Commissioner Jim Bunting said while it could be argued the VanVonnos knew the injection wells were on the property when they bought it, the extent to which the wells have failed could not be anticipated.
“They bought the property and built their home knowing those wells were there,” he said. “They also had an expectation that the wells would work.”
In the end, the commissioners agreed to have the original consultant, J.W. Salm Engineering, explore ways to alleviate the problem.
“The first step has to be an update on the study,” said Ross. “We have to figure out what we’re going to do and what we’re able to do. It would be premature to put anything out to bid until we’ve done that.”