State Sets Hearing on Renewed Federal Dumping in Earleville; Cecil County Council Backs Free Bottled Water for Residents

September 17, 2014

Earleville residents whose water wells have been polluted by a federal dredge spoil dumpsite will get their chance to weigh in on a proposal to renew dumping at the site at a state public hearing next week, as the Cecil County Council supported demands by local residents that free bottled water be provided by federal officials until a permanent solution to the water problem is in place.

Residents of the three affected communities—West View Shores, Bay View Estates and Sunset Pointe—received letters dated 9/11/14 from the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) announcing a public hearing on a “water quality certification” permit requested by the US Army Corps of Engineers. The hearing will be held on Saturday, 9/27/14, beginning at 9:30 a.m., at Cecilton Elementary School.

MDE blocked further dumping at the Pearce Creek dumpsite, located at the end of Pond Neck Road, more than 20 years ago due to concerns about possible pollution of groundwater in the areas. Those concerns were confirmed by an independent in-depth study by the US Geological Survey, released in early 2013, that found extensive pollution of local aquifers by the dump.

The Maryland Port Administration (MPA) has waged a high-profile campaign to renew dumping at Pearce Creek, contending it would be too costly to deposit the spoil material from Upper Bay shipping channels at other sites, such as Poplar Island farther south in the Bay. But before Pearce Creek can be re-opened to dumping, the state must issue the water quality permit.

The public hearing will include presentations by the Corps and MPA officials, followed by a question and answer period. Then area residents will be allowed to offer their comments on the issue, with a potential time limit of three minutes per speaker depending on the number of people wishing to offer testimony.

The MDE letter outlines the extraordinary volume of dredge spoil that the Corps wants to dump at the site. In just a six month period, from 10/1/15 through 3/31/16, a total of 1.3 million cubic yards of dredged material would be deposited. The dumpsite is located adjacent to the Chesapeake Bay and the Elk River.

The Army Corps is proposing to install a high-tech fabric liner over the existing dumpsite before depositing newly dredged material on top of it.

A key factor in the potential issuance of the MDE permit is finding a way to ensure safe drinking water to local residents. MPA has pledged to pay for a water pipeline from the town of Cecilton’s municipal system, seven miles away, to serve local residents who could hook up to the system at no charge. But MPA has made it clear it won’t follow through on the deal if MDE doesn’t issue the permit.

Ken Cowley, a leader of the Bay View residents who have played a very active role in researching the pollution issues and advocating for a solution, said the residents’ key agenda for the public meeting will be to push for a “fast track” for construction of the Cecilton water pipeline and providing free bottled water to local residents until it is available.

The Corps and MPA want to begin renewed dumping next fall but those officials have said it might be several more years before the pipeline and connections to homes are completed.

“There’s no construction money yet,” Cowley said, noting that MPA has so far provided funds to the town’s engineering consultant for studies and on-site surveys in the three communities. “We want to see an expedited construction schedule, with the money to back it up,” he said.

Meanwhile, some residents have pressed their case with county officials that at the least the Corps should provide free bottled water until the pipeline is operational.

A Bay View resident wrote a recent letter to County Executive Tari Moore and all members of the County Council, in which she related how she has been trying to sell her home for well over a year but cannot even have an open house for fear of potential liability for selling a home with polluted drinking water. She strongly criticized the “powers that be” in county government for not doing more to resolve the issue quickly.

The county government has maintained it is not directly responsible in the issue involving the state and federal agencies but carefully monitoring the progress. The lead local official on dealing with the agencies and trying to expedite the water solution has been Cecilton mayor Joseph Zang, who conceived the pipeline concept and has actively moved it forward.

The only county official who contacted the woman, sources said, was Councilor Diana Broomell (R-4) who also expressed concern that residents were forced to buy bottled water at their own expense.

It was Broomell who raised the issue at a Tuesday Council worksession on 9/16/14, saying that the residents “want to be reimbursed for their water” purchases and asked the Council to “send a letter on their behalf” to federal officials.

County Attorney Jason Allison said he had attended a recent meeting with Corps officials at which the agency indicated “amenability to bringing in an alternative water source.”

Council President Robert Hodge (R-5) then directed the Council’s manager to “draft a letter to the Corps of Engineers” expressing the Council’s support for the agency “to provide potable drinking water at no charge” to the area residents.

Lugging and paying for bottled water in the affected communities is both a logistical and costly problem for many residents, especially senior citizens. The nearest convenience stores (eight mile drive round-trip) often charge $1.50 a gallon for water and even cheaper prices at supermarkets (89-cents a gallon) require at least a 40-mile round-trip drive.

“We want water and we want it now,” Cowley said. “That’s our new crusade.”

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