SUBJECT: How the residents of the Piscataway Creek area learned to live with their neighborhood sewage treatment plant and what the residents of Potomac can learn from the Piscataway experience
TO: Residents of Potomac
FROM: The Weekly
The battle of Potomac has begun.
Montgomery County Executive James Gleason's controversial proposal to build the county's first major sewage treatment plant in Potomac is due to come before the County Council Friday.
The lame-duck council could make a decision on the emotional issue or could defer action, leaving the question to the newly elected County Council, which will take office in December under a new county executive. Either way, the council will be faced with Gleason's finding that the 455-acre Avenel farm site in Potomac is the most cost-effective of all the sites studied by county planners.
Coupled with their protests, Potomac residents have raised a number of questions about what life would be like if their community becomes a headquarters for treating sewage. What would the impact be? Would their noses be assailed by noxious odors, their eyes affronted by ugly, cinderblock buildings? Would the value of their homes plummet?Would they, heaven help them, be living in an undesirable neighborhood?
To find some answers, Potomac residents might look at a similar case - the Piscataway sewage treatment plant, built along Piscataway Creek in neighboring Prince George's County. Over-looking the 313-acre facility (which includes an open space buffer of 121 acres) is the community of Piscataway Hills. Downstream is Forts Washington Estates, as well as Fort Washington National Park.
The Piscataway and Potomac communities both offer desirable suburban locations and a countrified atmosphere. Both are affluent areas, although the homes in Piscataway Hills, which have the most direct view of the treatment plant, are not as expensive as those in Potomac. Potomac homes near the Avenel farm are priced in the $250,000 range; Piscataway Hills homes range from $80,000 to $150,000.
While the Piscataway area may not be as affluent as Potomac, it is equally rich in its natural beauty and historical heritage. Piscataway Creek, named for the Indian tribe that built its reservation on the surrounding plain, snakes lazily toward the Potomac River. The heavily treed bluff to the north is dappled with the browns and yellows of fall.
But how does the sewage plant fit into this peaceful, beautiful place? Generally, very well, say the people who live within its view.
"We really can't complain that much," says Glenn R. Spalding, who is a veteran leader of the Piscataway Hills Civic Association.
His assessment can be considered significant because in the early 1970s Spalding was one of the most vociferous critics of the Piscataway plant, which was built in sections, beginning in 1968.
In those years, there were plans - since scrapped - to incinerate the plant's sludge (the semi-dry residue of advanced sewage treatment) and to expand the plant three or four-fold and make it a regional facility like Blue Plains in the District.
Spalding, who has lived in Piscataway Hills eight years, says he and other residents who remember the battles still harbor fears that the expansion plans may be exhumed and brought to life. But the plant is no longer a burning issue in the neighborhood, he says.
"Communities have to face the fact that they have tod accomodate waste disposal," he says, striking a tone that may amaze local officials used to being shouted down by civic leaders whenever a sewer plant is proposed for any neighborhood. "The affluent shouldn't expect to export their sewage to less fortunate areas."
Spalding said he has never detected any unpleasant odors, although he added, "I have a bad nose." Another Piscataway Hills resident, Steven Nowell, who can see the plant a half mile from his home, said that since he moved to the neighborhood last July, he has noticed a "slight door" only once or twice for brief periods.
Both he and Spalding said they could detect a hum from machinery - a noice Nowell said was a "slight bother."
On one occasion, residents complained to the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) - which operates the plant and would do the same for the one planned for Potomac - about a broad concrete wall that, when the sun reached the west, cast as annoying reflection toward the bluff.
According to Ronald G. Soltis, waste water section head, the offending wall was painted brown and climbing ivy planted at its base. There are no longer complaints, he said.
The Piscataway plant, which cost $55.4 million (including $8.3 million for a pipeline to carry effluent beyond Piscataway Creek to the Potomac River), will be able to give advanced treatment to about 30 million gallons daily starting in the spring. The Potomac plant, which would cost $62 million, would be able to give advanced treatment to about 20 million gallons daily.
Sewage plants can be grim-looking facilities, but all the Piscataway buildings are designed in brick, Georgian style.There are even chimneys (but no fireplaces) in the administration building.
Dick Day, a WSSC planner, said the design of the proposed Potomac plant would reflect community wishes. "I have little doubt they'll tell us what they want. If we're going to build in Montgomery County, we're going to have to listen to the people."
The Potomac plant, Day said, "would be essentially the same facility" as Piscataway, as far as treatment is concerned. The process works like this:
When sewage enters the plant, it goes to large round tanks, where many of the solid materials are settle out. Then the party filtered sewage is piped to aeration tanks, where micro-organisms, helped along by doses of oxygen, consume most of the organic material. The sated micro-organisms are collected as sludge, a small part of which is put back in the aeration tanks and the rest converted to compost.
After the organisms do their job, the effluent still has to be cleansed of mosts of its nitrogen and phosphorus - the essence of advanced treatment. This is accomplished with chemicals that precipitate out pollutants through elaborate filters.
Smells are likely to occur when the organisms balk at some unpalatable substances in the sewage, such as Montomgery or Prince George's, this should not be a frequent occurrence if the plant is operated properly.
There is one big difference between Piscataway and the Avenel farm in Montgomery: The Prince George's plant is just a few hundred feet off Indian Head Highway, so truck traffic does not disrupt nearby neighborhoods.
In Potomac, however, the only roads leading to the Avenel farm - Persimmon Tree and Brickyard roads - are exclusively residential.
"If I could get down to that place (the treatment site) without going through those ritzy neighborhoods, I would do it," Day said. "If we could spend a million dollars and find another way, we would do it."