The cynics and critics are already saying that any nine-day, four-country, $35,000 tour of Europe by local officials is nothing more or less than a junket.
But the 17 politicians and bureaucrats from Montgomery, Prince George's and Fairfax counties and the District of Columbia who are embarking tomorrow on "The European Sludge Management Tour" insist that they are not only performing a valuable service, but doing it grudgingly.
The officials have decided to visit four sludge-processing plants in England, Germany, France and Sweden in an effort to find a new waste-disposal technology that will put an end to years of controversy over the treatment of the area's sewer waste.
Although the sludge-watching will coincide with the wine festival season in France and the Octoberfest in Germany, virtually none of the participants will concede that they are willing to leave home.
"These aren't exactly tourist attractions," said Montgomery County Council Chairman Neil Potter, who will be one of the participants. "I don't want to go myslef. I've been to Europe before."
"This isn't going to be a vacation," said Johanna Norris of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission. "I don't go on junkets. My time is too valuable."
In fact, said tour guide Marjorie Johnson of the WSSC, the schedule of the trip has been precisely arranged to fend off any accusations of enjoyment. Only three free evenings are scheduled over the course of nine days.
"My responsibility was to make sure this is a business trip, and I have arranged it so that it's strictly business," Johnson said. "I'm taking along my majorettes' whistle, and we have a very tight traveling schedule. Anybody who's not on the bus when I blow the whistel gets left behind."
In addition to Potter and Norris, Prince George's County Council Vice Chairman David G. Hartlove and two other WSSC commissioners will be on the bus, along with Fairfax County Executive James Lambert and staffers from Prince George's, Montgomery, and the District's environmental office. Each official will cost local governments about $2,000.
County officials say that what they have come to call "the sludge trip" was devised as a solution to what has been a long-standing impasse among local jurisdictions over the disposal of sludge from the Blue Plains Sewage Treatment plant.
Montgomery and Prince George's are under a court order to develop a new plan for disposing of sludge, which currently is being buried in many areas at a high cost.
For more than a year, the two counties have been battling over proposed sites for a new sludge-treatment plant that would solve the problem. Montgomery County does not want the plant, unless it is built on a site near the Prince George's border, and Prince George's opposes any site that puts the plant in or near its residents.
The sewer trip, officials say, was conceived partly as a way to force the counties to arrive at a solution.
"It's been easy for the politicians to just put this aside in the past," said Prince George's Council Administrator Sam Wynkoop, who helped plan the journey. "When they get back this time, there's going to be real public pressure on them to make a decision. After taking this trip, they'll feel they have to act."
The European sites the officials will visit use a type of sludge treatment known as the "in-vessel method" that is more technologically advanced than any system in the United States.
The trip, officials say is a means of finding out whether the technology will work if it is brought to Washington.
"The reason to go is to see and to smell these plants." Johnson said. "We want to see them in person, and talk to the people who live around them. That's the only way to know whether this technology is any good."
Already, however, there are problems. Some of the tour members are saying they are not conviced that the trip will be worthwhile. And others are irritated about several officials who they say unnecessarily invited themselves to go along.
"Our original proposal for the trip didn't include anyone from the WSSC," said one official who asked not to be identified. "But then three commissioners decided they should go, too. It's a waste."
"When I found out that the commission was going to have to pay for this trip," responded commissioner Norris, "that changed the whole complexion of it. We felt that if the commission was going to pay for it, commissioners who felt they could contribute should go along."