SNOW HILL – The county will pay a $540,000 Bay Restoration Fee following failure to meet nitrogen limits at the Ocean Pines Wastewater Treatment Plant.
The Worcester County Commissioners this week voted 5-2 to use the Ocean Pines service area’s reserve fund to pay the $540,000 Bay Restoration Fee. Commissioner Chip Bertino, who was one of the two votes in opposition, said the fee was only charged following negligence by a county employee and therefore should have been paid through the county’s general fund.
“It’s government’s responsibility to own up to the fact that a mistake was made…,” he said. “Irresponsibility of a government worker created this situation. I don’t think it’s fair that the service area pay for this.”
Public Works Director Dallas Baker approached the commissioners Tuesday seeking approval for a grant from the county’s general fund to cover the $540,000 Bay Restoration Fee, which typically the Ocean Pines treatment plant doesn’t have to pay because it usually meets its nitrogen limits.
In 2021, however, the plant’s nitrogen levels were higher than usual. According to Baker, in January 2021, staff discovered a clogged pipe at the treatment plant.
“In the process of getting that unclogged, they discovered there was a rake head, think of a potato rake head, that had gotten lodged into the pipe,” he said.
Rakes are typically used to remove debris from the clarifier arms at the top of each tank.
“We suspect that the head fell off the rake, got into the pipe and clogged it up,” Baker said. “When it occurred, we don’t know. Nobody reported it.”
To clear the clogged pipe, crews had to drain the tank. That’s how the plant’s nitrogen levels came to be impacted.
“When you refill the tank up the microbes in that tank don’t work very well in cold water,” he said. “You have to slowly rebuild that population.”
The plant didn’t start hitting the proper nitrogen levels again until March. That skewed the facility’s annual average.
“We were not able to meet the 3 milligram per liter permit values,” Baker said. “Our actual value is 4.3 for the year which then triggers Maryland Department of the Environment to charge the Bay Restoration Fee which is roughly $60 per EDU through the Ocean Pines district.”
He said he was proposing the fee be paid with a grant from the general fund rather than the Ocean Pines ratepayers because the issue was the fault of department personnel.
Commissioner Ted Elder, however, made a motion to pay the fee from the $690,000 currently in the service area’s reserve fund. He said that while Ocean Pines rate payers typically got a discount of $60 a year because of the good job that was done at the treatment plant, everybody else in the county already paid the annual Bay Restoration Fee.
Bertino, who represents Ocean Pines, said the problem that prompted the fee being administered had nothing to do with natural causes.
“It had to do with the irresponsibility of a public works worker,” he said.
Bertino said if the employee had simply reported the rake head falling off, the clog and resulting circumstances could have been avoided.
“I don’t think it’s fair at all for the service area to pay for this because it was a government screw up,” he said.
He added that when citizens had leaks that resulted in water loss they weren’t aware of, they had to pay for it. Similarly, he said it was government’s obligation to pay in this case.
“Government employees screwed up …,” he said. “As a result a multimillion dollar facility was put in harm’s way.”
Elder reiterated that the rest of the county was already paying the Bay Restoration Fee. He said he didn’t think the rest of the county should be paying for the discount Ocean Pines residents were accustomed to.
The commissioners voted 5-2, with Bertino and Commissioner Jim Bunting opposed, to approve paying the fee through the service area’s reserve fund.