The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission warned yesterday that the proposed intercounty connector linking Montgomery and Prince George's counties could threaten drinking water in the region and cost ratepayers hundreds of millions of dollars.
Utility officials urged the state not to build the road along a proposed northern route -- one of two under consideration -- because it would enter the watershed of the agency's two Patuxent River reservoirs, which provide drinking water for almost a third of the utility's 1.6 million customers in Montgomery and Prince George's counties.
Roads and Drinking Water: The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission says the proposed northern alignment for the intercounty connector threatens the safety of drinking water for 500,000 of its 1.6 million customers in Prince George's and Montgomery counties.
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"This alignment directly threatens the safe drinking water supplies for more than 500,000 WSSC customers," Joyce A. Starks, the utility's chairman, said in prepared remarks as she joined other top agency officials yesterday at the Patuxent Water Filtration Plant in Laurel to express opposition to the project.
Last week, the commissioners unanimously approved a resolution calling on the state to abandon the northern alignment.
Debate over the highway project, which is estimated to cost as much as $2.4 billion and would run 18 to 20 miles between Interstate 270 in Montgomery and I-95 in Prince George's, has grown more fevered as the state comes closer to selecting a route. Most speakers at public hearings have voiced support for the southern route, which has been in Montgomery's master plan for 40 years.
Starks said yesterday that congestion and development on the northern route would increase the presence of sediment, harmful nutrients and toxic materials seeping into the Rocky Gorge and Triadelphia reservoirs. The reservoirs also serve as a regional water supply during droughts and emergencies.
Neil J. Pedersen, administrator for the Maryland State Highway Administration, said he has asked a panel of water experts to investigate WSSC's concerns.
"I think there have been some very important issues that have been raised by WSSC," he said. "We want to make sure that we have a full understanding of all of the issues related to the reservoir prior to the selection" of a route this spring.
Utility officials said the state is brushing aside issues they have raised for more than a year. They pointed out that the state's 7,000-page draft environmental impact statement for the project included about 20 pages devoted to water issues.
"I was very surprised that this lengthy document all but ignores the impact to drinking water," said Marc Lieber, an agency commissioner and former chairman of the Patuxent River Commission.
Plato Chen, a senior environmental scientist at the agency, said the utility might need to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to build new facilities to treat additional pollutants from the highway. He also said he worried more about accidents on the road that no amount of money could fix.
"If you had a toxic spill, we would probably have to shut down," he said.
Also yesterday, opponents of the intercounty connector said in a report that additional traffic on the highway would increase fuel demand in the area by 5 percent over the next 25 years.
The report, issued by the nonprofit group Environmental Defense, said the highway would increase dependence on foreign fuel and contribute to global warming by increasing carbon dioxide emissions by 117,000 metric tons a year.