SNOW HILL – As the prospect of implementing spray irrigation at the Ocean Pines Golf Course is explored, some residents are questioning the county’s priorities.
In recent months, conversation has abounded in the Pines regarding plans from the Worcester County Department of Public Works to explore the possibility of irrigating the Ocean Pines Golf Course with effluent from the community’s wastewater treatment plant. That discussion has renewed interest in the issue of leaking sewage holding tanks throughout the Pines.
“I don’t care if it’s only one tank,” longtime resident Joe Reynolds said. “It should have been corrected.”
Reynolds, who filed a complaint regarding the issue with the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) last week, attended the most recent meeting of the Ocean Pines Water and Wastewater Advisory Board to share his concerns. He wants to know why the county hasn’t replaced the hundreds of old and cracked holding tanks throughout the community.
“What flows out of those tanks is pure, untreated raw sewage,” Reynolds said. “Most people don’t notice because it typically happens during rainfall. On average, this happens two to five times a year depending on where they’re located.”
John Ross, the county’s deputy director of public works, confirmed that some of the 3,000 tanks that make up the vacuum system in Ocean Pines leak.
“We’ve been replacing them the last 15 years,” he said. “We don’t ignore the problem.”
Ross says his department monitors the underground tanks and replaces roughly 50 a year. He believes addressing the issue gradually is the practical solution to the problem.
“We do not have a complete assessment of all 3,000 tanks in the system,” he said. “We’re prioritizing their replacement.”
He said the department budgeted about $130,000 a year to replace tanks identified as needing attention immediately.
“It’s not as easy a putting a contract out and having them all replaced,” he said, adding that many were in people’s front yards or surrounded by landscaping that’s been planted by residents over the years.
According to Ross, the county took over the vacuum system serving the Pines community in the 1980s because it was in such bad shape new homes couldn’t even be built. He said the county spent millions to get the system back up and running.
“Things have changed significantly since the ‘80s,” Ross said. “We’ve got the system under control. Do we have everything done? No.”
He added that the situation would be more manageable if people didn’t put so much landscaping around the tanks, as roots tended to cause cracks.
“The roots head toward the tanks,” he said. “There are nutrients in the tanks.”
Another issue is stormwater, as tanks inundated with stormwater don’t work. Ross said the only solution to that problem would be to raise the tanks above ground.
Ross said that any wastewater system had the potential to overflow.
“I can’t say it doesn’t happen,” he said. “It’s very rare. It’s not a routine thing… It used to happen all the time. We’ve cleaned the system up to the point we’re one of the only systems in the state exempted from Bay restoration (fees). We’re proud of what we’ve done here.”
The complaint Reynolds filed with MDE last week related to the overflow of tanks in the Pines.
“Ocean Pines homes have collection tanks for sewage, and those tanks connect to a collection system that transfers sewage to the wastewater treatment plant,” said Jay Apperson, deputy director of communications for MDE. “Mr. Reynold’s complaint was that during heavy rains several of the tanks overflow, and, in particular, he said an overflow took place on or about Aug. 13, 2017.”
Apperson said MDE conducted an inspection Monday in response to the complaint.
“We were told by a county public works official that there were heavy rains on Aug. 10 and Aug. 12, 2017,” Apperson said Tuesday. “The collection system superintendent said those rains caused operational problems with the collection system and that the county received a call from Mr. Reynolds’ residence during this time. We did not receive a report from the Oceans Pines system of an overflow at that location on or around that date. We asked the county public works official to review the records for the Ocean Pines system for any information relating to that date.”
While the MDE investigation is ongoing, Apperson said operators at the Ocean Pines plant communicated well with the state.
“Oceans Pines has a history of being proactive in addressing problems and notifying MDE immediately when one occurs,” he said. “They have reported infrequent, relatively small overflows in recent years. During our inspection yesterday we did not observe any overflow situations or evidence of sewage or sewage debris.”
As for the holding tanks, Ross said last week his department would continue to try to replace at least 50 a year. He added that he would bring up Reynolds’ concerns with the county commissioners when he presented the department’s budget.
“We will present the information Mr. Reynolds presented,” he said. “That’s a decision the commissioners can make as far as prioritizing.”
Reynolds, however, maintains that a decades-long approach to replacing the tanks is not the way to go.
“Tell that to the mother whose toddler is playing in raw sewage,” he said. “It needs to be fixed.”
He said the county’s inattention to the problem was “absurd” because it was instead considering spending millions on spray irrigation. The Ocean Pines Association will host a joint meeting to discuss spray irrigation with county staff and Worcester County Commissioners Chip Bertino and Jim Bunting Thursday at 5 p.m. at the Ocean Pines Community Center.