Water Well Permit Denied for Home in Earleville Area Polluted by Federal Dump; Building Ban Looms as State-Local Feud Clouds Prospects for Cecilton Water Line
A CECIL TIMES SPECIAL REPORT
The Cecil County Health Department has refused to issue a water well permit needed to build a home in one of the Earleville communities where local aquifers were polluted by the nearby US Army Corps of Engineers dredge spoil dumpsite—a decision that could lead to a virtual building ban on area lots. The health agency ruled that water in the area was not “potable” and therefore state law required denial of a permit.
The decision could decimate the property values of lots in the area and prevent construction of new homes, as well as complicating the purchase and sales of existing area homes.
It was the first time that a well permit was denied due to water quality problems in the area since a landmark study by the US Geological Survey, issued in January 2013, concluded that the federal government’s dumpsite at Pearce Creek had altered underground water flow in the area and polluted many residents’ water supplies with contaminants, including arsenic and other toxics in some wells.
The pollution persists despite the fact that the dump has been closed to new deposits of shipping channel dredge spoils for over 20 years due to environmental concerns. But the Army Corps and the Maryland Port Administration want to re-open the site to new dumping by mid-2015, and to do so the agencies must first obtain a water quality certification from the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE).
The new health department permit denial comes at a time when multi-agency discussions have hit a bureaucratic snag in efforts to resolve the local water quality issues by building a seven-mile pipeline to bring clean municipal water from the nearby town of Cecilton to the affected communities, which are located in southern Cecil County adjacent to the Chesapeake Bay and the Elk River.
According to local and federal officials involved in the discussions, a critical problem is the reluctance of the MDE to order the closing of existing homes’ wells and require hookups to the proposed Cecilton-supplied water system. MDE officials are said to be afraid of “litigation” and want the local health department to “condemn” the existing wells, while local officials say state law is clear that MDE has the authority to do so and Cecil County is just a bystander in the issue.
Engineering experts have warned that unless existing polluted wells are shut down, there could be cross-contamination with the proposed new water system. In addition, unless a sufficient number of existing homes connect to the Cecilton-provided system, it could become cost-prohibitive for the town to help out the Earleville communities.
Owners of existing homes would receive free hookups to the expanded Cecilton system, under proposed funding to be provided by the Maryland Port Administration, but going forward local homeowners would have to pay water supply bills to the town. The residents’ ongoing costs have been estimated to be less than, or equal to, the costs most local residents pay to operate current in-home water treatment systems to deal with the existing foul-tasting, smelly and chemical-laden water from private home wells in the area.
Meanwhile, in the latest development in the local water saga, a southern Pennsylvania resident who owns a lot in the Bay View Estates community in Earleville sought a permit to drill a well for a new home his family wanted to build. But several days ago, the county health department denied the application after finding that the site would not provide “potable” well water.
Fred VonStaden, environmental health director for the Cecil County Health Department, told Cecil Times that the decision to deny a well permit was made on the basis of well test data the agency had on hand from testing of wells for existing houses on two “adjoining properties” to the proposed building site. He said it was the first decision to deny a well permit in the three communities affected by the Pearce Creek dumpsite—Bay View Estates, West View Shores and Sunset Pointe.
The Cecil County Health Department is officially a state agency but receives some of its budget funds from Cecil County and the County Council and the County Executive constitute the Cecil County Board of Health that oversees the agency’s operations.
VonStaden said that he “consulted” with MDE before denying the well permit and that state agency agreed with the decision. He said the decision did not amount to a blanket ban on any new wells in the affected Earleville communities, but that each application would be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. For lots with no adjacent homes’ well test data on file at the local health department, he said, health officials might issue a temporary test well permit to evaluate the actual water quality of an individual site and review the results in “consultation” with MDE before deciding on whether to issue a permit.
Such standards for review exceed previous evaluations for the area. The recent Bay View permit denial drew concerns from area homeowners as well as local officials and County Council members who have been involved in talks to try to assure a clean, safe water supply to the Earleville communities.
“I guess that lot I bought is now worth nothing,” observed Ken Cawley, a leader of the Bay View Estates homeowners association that has been active in questioning the Pearce Creek dumpsite and demanding assurances that renewed Corps’ dumping will not further impact local water supplies. Cawley and his wife, Nancy, own a lot across the road from their waterfront home in Bay View Estates that they bought just to protect their pastoral views on that side of the property and which only houses an elevated birdhouse that attracts many feathered visitors.
Most of the three affected communities were subdivided decades ago and are “grandfathered” from current environmental rules limiting housing construction near the Chesapeake Bay. And many open lots are not within the Bay “critical area” environmental restrictions on development. Some lots in the area have been passed down in families for generations, awaiting moves by family members to build a retirement home in the future.
Cecil County Councilor Alan McCarthy (R-1), whose district includes the Earleville area and who has played a leading role in meetings with state and federal officials on the dump-related water issues, said he was “very concerned” that the health department decision would hurt local property owners. “We need action on the Cecilton waterline proposal and we need it now,” he said.
Cecilton Mayor Joseph Zang, who has spearheaded efforts to resolve the Earleville well pollution issue by running a water pipeline to the area from his town, said that the Bay View well permit denial shows that there must be a “top level” meeting of local, county and state officials with Larry Summers, the state MDE secretary, to resolve some of the bureaucratic stumbling blocks.
The reluctance of MDE to take responsibility for mandating closure of existing private wells, despite what County Attorney Jason Allison says is clear state legal authority to do so, could kill the Cecilton pipeline in its tracks. But “we are ready to go,” Zang said, and the town could expedite its construction of a water pipeline to Earleville if only the involved state agencies could get together on the same page.
The Maryland Port Administration has promised to pay the costs of running the pipeline from Cecilton to the affected communities and provide existing homes with free hookups to the system—at an estimated cost of $12 million to $14 million–but ONLY if the MDE gives the Corps approval for the required water quality certificate that will allow renewed dumping of dredge spoils in Earleville.
Some local residents have viewed that proposition as blackmail, especially since MPA and the Army Corps want to resume dumping several years before an assured, safe drinking water supply would be provided to local residents.
So far, as a good-faith gesture, the MPA has paid $197,000 in preliminary engineering and planning costs to the town of Cecilton for evaluation of the pipeline to Earleville. Mayor Zang said the town submitted a request on Wednesday for another $441,000 in engineering studies and reviews that would bring the project to a ready-to-go construction bid status. The town is prepared to do final engineering studies, including on-site reviews in mid-August of individual homes to determine how to hook them up to the pipeline—but only if the state Port Administration comes through with the next installment payment on the engineering aspects of the project. MPA’s willingness to fork over more money is uncertain, without a guarantee of the MDE permit to resume dumping that the Port so desperately wants.
Mayor Zang has been the leading point-person on the pipeline proposal, championing and explaining the concept well before state and county government authorities recognized the value, and viability, of Zang’s proposals.
Cecil County Council President Robert Hodge (R-5) told Cecil Times he was very concerned that the Health Department decision on the Bay View well permit would violate local residents’ property rights. He said he would schedule a meeting of the County Council with the local health department to obtain a formal written policy on how well water permits would be handled in the Earleville communities so that local property owners received clear standards for permit reviews.
“This is going to hurt everyone that owns lots” in the area, Hodge said of the Bay View permit decision.
Earlier, the County Council voted, 4-1, at a Tuesday morning worksession to send a rather bland and non-committal letter to the MDE’s Secretary, Robert Summers, regarding the Pearce Creek dump and area water supply issues. The letter was toned-down by a majority of the Council so as to prevent obstreperous Councilor Diana Broomell (R-4) from sticking her toe into delicate negotiations on the Pearce Creek issue.
Broomell said she wanted the Council to take a more active role in discussions with the state on the dump/water quality issues, while displaying a behind-the-curve awareness of the state of play on the issues. Hodge said he didn’t want her, or the full Council, to “screw up” the delicate negotiations. Hodge also voiced strong support for Councilor McCarthy’s heavy involvement in the discussions on the issue.
Hodge told Cecil Times on Wednesday that he would still send the approved letter to Secretary Summers “as a start” in discussions on the Pearce Creek issues. But, he added, the County Council wanted more answers from the health department on the rationale and implications of the decision to deny well water permits in the Earleville area.
While local officials worry about the health agency’s potential shutdown of area water well permits, a crucial time clock on the dumpsite revival has started: the Army Corps of Engineers formally submitted on 7/1/14 its application to MDE for a water quality permit needed to resume dumping at the Pearce Creek site, according to Tim Kelly, US Army Corps of Engineers project manager for the C&D Canal and a major player in the Cecil County project.
That submission sets off a one-year deadline for the MDE to render a decision on whether or not to issue a water quality certification that would allow resumed dumping at the Pearce Creek site.