Public Hearing

Montgomery County residents will get a chance to say what they think about land treatment at a public hearing at 7 p.m. tonight in the County Council chamber.

The hearing is designed to get the public's opinions on the various sewage treatment sites recommended by consultants hired by the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission. Some sites would involve land treatment; others would involve traditional plants.

Both the council and County Executive James P. Gleason have said they want to decide on a site by the time of the general election, Nov. 7.

A delegation of Montgomery County officials and citizens trudged through a muddy cornfield near this industrial city on Lake Michigan recently searching for a solution to the county's increasingly urgent sewage problems.

The journey to the cornfield was the result of the intense pressure being put on Montgomery County to consider land treatment as the answer to its problem.

Muskegon County is the only major urban area in the country that has turned to the controversial system, which is as ancient as imperial Rome but is used so rarely today that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers it "innovative technology."

In land treatment, partly treated sewage is sprayed onto the ground for a final, high-level cleansing. In the soil, pollutants become nutrients that help crops grow. Last year Muskegon grossed $902,000 from its corn sales.

With the cost of conventional sewage systems - big plants with elaborate plumbing - rising so spectacularly, EPA has told localities that if they don't take a close look at land treatment, they might not get federal funding for water-cleanup projects.

In the past, localities have balked at choosing land treatment because of the fear of odors and health hazards from spraying operations. There has also been concern about the cost of acquiring the large amount of land - Muskegon needed 11,000 acres - for such a system.

Montgomery County Executive James P. Gleason, no friend of land treatment, has already opted for the conventional solution. But with pressure bearing down, an aide said, "We wanted to settle this question once and for all."

So was born the trip to Muskegon, which included a bus ride out to the sewage farm, where members of the delegation wanted to investigate complaints of nearby residents that the system created odors and that a large part of the corn acreage was flooded.

After the day-and-a-half whirlwind trip to Muskegon, the delegation did not announce a verdict. But these were the two most frequently heard conclusions:

Land treatment works in Muskegon, though some nearby residents have to live with periodic odors that are probably caused by sewage from the local paper mill, which is difficult to process. The odors probably wouldn't be a problem in Montgomery because the county doesn't have such industry. Flooding in the cornfields exists, but is not serious, and steps are being taken to eliminate it.

The system probably would work in Montgomery, but on a reduced scale that may or may not be large enough to handle the county sewage needs through the interim period ending in 1993. The answer depends on whether one believes EPA, which says the county doesn't need more than 5 million additional gallons of capacity, or Gleason and the County Council, who say 20 million more gallons of capacity are needed.

"I found the system terribly impressive," said Steve Poteat, interim project director in the county environmental planning office, which, in the past has reflected Gleason's negative attitude toward land treatment. "I think it could work in Montgomery, but I just don't know if we have the patience to go through with it."

Thompson Butz, of Germantown, one of the citizens on the trip, said: "I didn't come away thinking it was unfeasible. I came away wondering if it could handle what the county says is needed . . . I think land treatment is something that can be used in Montgomery, but not for 20 million gallons daily I think it should be limited to something closer to 5 million gallons."

Dick Day, one of the top planners at the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, the sewer agency for Montgomery and Prince George's County said: "They (Muskegon) tried to do too much for the money they had. Some of the yelling I heard last night (residents complaining about ordors) is justified, but not all of it."

On the question of land treatment vs. conventional treatment: "You could make a convincing case one way or the other. I cannot tell you honestly I can make a more convincing case for advanced waste-water treatment (a plant with the elaborate plumbing like Piscataway in Prince George's) or land treatment."

Leon W. Weinberger, the consultant who prepared Montgomery's interim study that found two land treatment sites cost-competitive with conventional systems, said: "I don't think the balance tips one way or another. How you separate out the emotions - that's hard."

That's especially true in Montgomery County, where an organization called CASST (Citizens Alliance for Safe Sewage Treatment) has "pledged itself to fighting land treatment throughout the county . . . The potential for a medical and environmental catastrophe is very great."

One of CASST's leaders, Bernard Scharf, who lives in Olney near a potential site, was part of the Montgomery delegation to Muskegon.

Scharf wanted to know about well contamination. He was told local, state and independent laboratory tests have turned up no evidence that land treatment has contaminated wells.

He wanted to know about irrigation water entering ground water. He was given a U.S. Geological Survey report that said that hasn't happened.

He wanted to know about airborne viruses. He was told there is no documented case of illness since the system went into operation in 1974.

By the end of the trip, the vocal Scharf was a subdued opponent. "I'm discouraged by the trend of events," he said. "I think the county is going to land treatment."

The system that Scharf and the rest of the delegation to Muskegon saw works this way:

Sewage from homes and industry is piped to big basins where the heaviest pollutants settle out, and oxygen, fed by churning aerators, triggers a biological process that kills many more. The partially cleansed effluent then goes to massive lagoons for further settling and scrubbing - up to six months.

After this treatment, the effluent is sprayed onto about 5,000 acres of corn fields. The soil captures most of the remaining pollutants and converts them into nutrients that help corn grow. Surplus water is either returned to the lagoons or, if it meets state standards, discharged into nearby steams.

The biggest hitch in the Muskegon system, the Montgomery delegation seemed to agree, is the occasional odors, which apparently come from constituents of pulp waste that, as environmentalist Robert K. Davis said, have an odor similar to outhouses. (Davis by the way, said he thought the Muskegon system, overall, was successful, but he saw both technical and political problems weighing against land treatment in Montgomery.)

Maxine J. McGrady, of Muskegon County, leader of an admittedly dwindling group of opponents called the system a "health hazard," but neither she nor any other members of the group produced documentation, and most members of the delegation didn't take the accusation seriously.

The McGrady group also charged that land treatment has adversely affected land values in Egelston township. But Township Supervisor Tom J. G. Bolt said land values increased from $10 million to $26 million from 1972 to 1976 in the economically depressed area. They are likely to rise, other officials said, when residents who now use overburdened septic fields soon book up with the Muskegon sewerage system.

Muskegon acquired its 11,000-acre site for $350 to $500 an acre - a bargain that Montgomery would never be able to find. Sites in Montgomery would cost at least $3,000 an acre and depending on the location, as much as $6,000. Yet the consultant's study for the county found land treatment to be financially competitive with conventional plants in some areas, primarily western Montgomery County.

Bert Cumby, one of Montgomery's commissioners on the WSSC board, knows that what words technically may not work politically. Before he boarded a bus to the airport, he said: "The good in this system (Muskegon's) probably outweighs the negatives . . . But I think we would have one helluva job selling the system to our residents."