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State intervenes in Town's sewage troubles

Chris Patterson
The Gazette

(10/28/2004) The Town of Thurmont is in negotiations with the Maryland Department of the Environment to establish a plan to rehabilitate the town’s sewer system and to work out pre-set penalties for failure to comply, according Rich McIntyre of the state’s environmental management arm.

Work on Thurmont’s sewer problems was already under way when severe flooding occurred in several homes in town in mid-2003. At budget meetings in June 2003, the town’s board of commissioners voted to accelerate repairs and order a comprehensive study on the problems.

ARRO Consulting, Inc., of Mechanicsburg, Pa., completed that study in September 2004. The Gazette obtained a copy of ARRO’s 20-page report to the town this week under a Maryland Public Information Act request.

The report gives a detailed analysis of the town’s sewer system and concludes needed repairs and engineering will cost about $1.17 million.

The severity of Thurmont’s sewer problems came to light when several families on Iron Master Court were flooded out of their homes in May 2003 during heavy rains. The damage was not from water, but from overflowing sewage entering the basements of some homes through toilets and pipes.

Homes in other parts of town have also been affected at times by sewer problems, including the home of Mayor Martin Burns.

Due to extensive damage and contamination in the Iron Master Court homes, some property owners were forced to live outside their houses – at friends or family’s homes, trailers in their driveways, or in hotels – while repairs were being done.

Upset about the flooding, several of the neighbors came to a town meeting to ask what the town was going to do. They asked the board of commissioners to do whatever was necessary to complete repairs to avoid a repeat spill.

In early June 2003, one of the families came home from a town meeting only to find sewage in the house again.

On that day, town staff pumped overflowing sewage from a manhole into a nearby stormwater management pond to keep more homes from being damaged.

It is a scene played over and over again during nearly every heavy rain since.

The town was required to report each incident to the Maryland Department of the Environment. The town is required to describe the approximate amount of the spillage, where it occurred and why.

Documents obtained by The Gazette this week show by December 2003, the state had received at least one complaint about the spills and had sent an investigator to examine the stormwater pond where the sewage was being pumped.

Michael Pratt, of the state environment department, wrote in his report, dated Dec. 12, 2003, that the stormwater pond showed no debris, stains or odor from the pumping. He also inspected manhole no. 1 at the wastewater treatment plant – which also overflowed – and found it to have been treated appropriately with lime.

The incidents of pumping and continued when, on June 24, 2004, eight property owners in the town filed a lawsuit against the town alleging negligence.

Thurmont town attorney Debra Borden, of Board and Borden LLC in Frederick, said the central question in this case is whether the town "did all it could and should have done… so backups don’t occur.

"And our answer is yes, the town did all it can do. The town can’t be responsible for acts of God," Borden said in an interview Tuesday.

Borden said property law is substantially different than personal injury law. While compensation for pain and suffering may be common in personal injury cases, it just doesn’t happen in property cases.

Borden said the case would likely not move on until the summer of 2005. In the interim, the town is proceeding with seeking bids for sewer repairs, which will be required by the state, town clerk Rick May said.

ARRO Consulting is preparing the design drawings for the bids, May said Tuesday.

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