JOPPA, Md — A Harford County church has withdrawn its controversial application to discharge treated wastewater into a tributary of the Little Gunpowder Falls.
"It's good news for anyone in Baltimore and Harford counties using these waters," said Gunpowder Riverkeeper Theaux Legardeur.
Mountain Christian Church submitted the application to the Maryland Department of the Environment, proposing to discharge wastewater treated by an advanced system into a tributary of the Little Gunpowder Falls.
"We care deeply about the environment. We want to be good stewards of the land. God has given it to us. We don’t own it; we manage it, and so this is our effort to manage it well," the church's executive pastor Luke Erickson said of the proposal in July.
Erickson said the goal was to improve their current septic system that MDE said is failing or has already failed, has "significant" compliance violations and discharges into a drain field where "a restrictive clay layer exists creating poor permeability to to subsurface groundwater."
"There's been reports of the clay there, it has trouble percolating, so that's ultimately why MDE has recognized our system is unsustainable," said Erickson.
Erickson said when they noticed the system starting to fail a few years ago, they reached out to MDE to see what their options were.
"We have followed a thorough process outlined by the MDE, sought the technical expertise and advice of Maryland Environmental Service, an independent State agency, and utilized the services of a private engineering firm," wrote the church in a statement.
The church developed the proposal to discharge wastewater treated by an advanced state-of-the-art wastewater treatment plant into a tributary to the Little Gunpowder Falls. It would cost the church around a half a million dollars to install. It's developed by Owings Mills-based Innovative Treatment Products LLC.
"The raw sewage first has to pass through this screen," said owner Rob Kershner, describing the beginning of the treatment process.
He said then they use a biological process where bacteria consume the waste and convert nutrients into a gas or solids. Then a vacuum pulls the water through a membrane that traps bacteria and viruses.
"The water coming out has zero solids in it, zero bacteria and zero viruses. This is going to be significantly cleaner than the receiving water," Kershner said. "This system is going to treat levels higher than what MDE requires."
Still, the proposal drew in lots of criticism. MDE extended the comment period for the application and scheduled an additional informational meeting about it. Many instead wanted the church to instead discharge the treated wastewater within the bounds of the church property. Neighbors like Tod and Sophie Hayes, whose property is bisected by the tributary, had concerns about the impacts to the environment and cleanliness of the water.
"Our animals depend on this water. We depend on this water," said Tod.
"I understand the wastewater plant takes out some things, but it does not take out pharmaceutical residue," said Sophie.
Last week, because of those concerns, the church withdrew its surface water discharge permit application and informed MDE of its intention to work to permanently resolve the onsite septic system failure, including the noncompliance of the current system and the failing drainfields, under its current groundwater discharge permit. This work may include improvements to the current drainfields or replacing them. The church will still use an advanced treatment system similar to the one proposed in its permit application, but no water will be discharged into the Little Gunpowder Falls.
"Because of the advancement of technology and the purity levels of the effluent that are made possible by MBR (membrane bio-reactor) technology in wastewater treatment systems, our research has led us to the conclusion that subsurface discharge on our campus is possible," the church wrote in a statement.
MDE has asked the church to provide a schedule for the remaining steps for a combination drainfield/new advanced treatment system for the department's consideration.
"The Maryland Department of the Environment embraces innovative and collaborative solutions for environmental progress. Our Water and Science Administration has been in communication with the church to provide technical assistance on its revised proposal to solve its wastewater issues with the addition of an advanced treatment system for its groundwater discharge with no discharge to the Little Gunpowder Falls. We will carefully review and oversee the church's remaining steps to put this promising system into place to ensure the protection of the environment and public health throughout the watershed," said Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles.
"We hope that the planning process that MDE and the church are undertaking will result in a better solution for keeping their wastewater on-site," said Legardeur.
In the meantime, the church has suspended the discharge of any effluent from our current system. It is being contained onsite and hauled off by a third-party septic hauling company.
"The ultimate solution will require still more research, exploration, and planning, but we are confident that this thorough and environmentally-sound process will lead to an environmentally-sound solution, which has been our commitment from the beginning," wrote the church in a statement.