Sludge Plant to Be Closed
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 24, 1999; Page C1
Sixteen years after a sludge composting operation opened, Montgomery County is set to abandon the $68 million plant that was built over the heated objections of nearby residents as well as officials in neighboring Prince George's County.
The Montgomery County Regional Composting Facility, north of White Oak, lived up to many expectations of Montgomery's environmentally conscious leaders, turning sewage sludge into compost so rich it has been spread on the White House lawn. Its many environmental awards fill a wall inside its offices.
But the benefits of composting sludge have not been enough to quiet the protests of neighbors, who for years have complained about the odors. After spending millions of dollars trying to stop the smell, county officials say it is time to look at alternatives for handling Montgomery's share of the sludge generated by the Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant in the District.
"What a big waste of money," said Del. Barbara Frush (D-Prince George's), who lives in nearby Calverton and was a leading civic opponent of the east Montgomery site.
On Wednesday, board members from the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, the bi-county water and sewer agency that runs the plant, are slated to consider a proposal to shut it down. Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) and County Council President Isiah Leggett (D-At Large) are backing closure, citing the neighborhood opposition and saying there are cheaper methods of disposing the sludge, such as spreading it on fields.
"It was a mistake to put this facility at that location. It's just too much of a dense, highly populated area," Leggett said.
Duncan said he has gotten complaints from residents and commercial landowners about the plant's smell. But, he said, financial considerations persuaded him to push for its closure. Because of the odor, WSSC had for years operated the facility at less than half its capacity of 400 tons a day, driving up the cost per ton. County officials said it costs $100 to compost a ton of sludge. Meanwhile, spreading it on fields -- which is how most of Montgomery's sludge from Blue Plains is handled -- costs $35 a ton.
"It's cost-prohibitive to run that facility," he said. "It's never going to operate at capacity. I want to cut our losses now instead of waiting five years and spending another $10 million."
The county is considering closing the plant at a time when other jurisdictions, such as Virginia and counties on Maryland's Eastern Shore -- two potential recipients of additional Montgomery County sludge -- are showing a growing resistance to imported waste. Some officials and environmental advocates caution that this backlash could make land application much more expensive in the future.
"This [composting] is the kind of experiment that we need to make work for us," said Neal Fitzpatrick, conservation director at the Audubon Naturalist Society, an environmental group. "I'm going to be very disappointed if we give up on it."
The composting facility has been a thorn in the side of Montgomery officials since the late 1970s, when the County Council chose to situate it on 110 acres in an industrial park off Route 29 near the county's eastern border. The plant was needed to handle Montgomery's share of Blue Plains sludge, which now amounts to 400 tons a day.
The selection drew immediate protests from people in nearby communities and from Prince George's officials, who saw the site selection as an affront because it was so close to their boundary. At the time, the two counties were involved in a dispute over sewer capacity.
"This was as much a snubbing of Prince George's County as anything else," said Robert B. Ostrom, the Prince George's county attorney at the time. Montgomery prevailed after a lengthy court fight, and the plant opened in 1983.
Over the years, WSSC, with backing from Montgomery officials, has spent millions in upgrades, such as enclosing storage areas and installing state-of-the-art exhaust scrubbers to try to diminish the odors produced while turning sludge into compost.
But the complaints about the smell never went away.
"They put a lot of money into it. They've gone through a lot of effort," said Bruce Donaldson, an engineering professor and longtime opponent of the plant who is a member of the Calverton Citizens Association. "It still stinks."
Some county officials, such as council member Marilyn Praisner (D-Eastern County), who represents the area surrounding the plant, have backed efforts to close it for years. The push gained momentum last year, when Duncan recommended shutting it down as part of the county's 10-year solid waste plan.
This month, WSSC commissioner Kevin P. Maloney, one of three Montgomery representatives on the agency board, said he would make a formal motion to close the facility. "It's too expensive to run," Maloney said in an interview, "but the reason it's closing is political: The people don't want it there."
The three Prince George's representatives on the board said they would support closing the plant if several conditions are met, including promises that no sludge would be disposed of in their county and that the WSSC would not have to repay federal grants for building the composting plant.
Montgomery County's Chief Administrative Officer Bruce Romer, who is working on meeting those conditions, said Friday that he expects everything to be set in time for Wednesday's meeting. "All of these things are being worked out," he said.
The actual decision of what to do with the physical plant itself -- the $68 million investment -- would come later.
"Our interests are grounded in economics," Romer said. "This has never been an economic equation that can work."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company