On warm spring days, a fresh mountain breeze often wafts through this picturesque village. Residents flee into their houses and shut their windows.
Down along Flintstone Creek, a tributary of the Potomac River, the fish are biting and outsiders pull what local call "brown trout" from the chilly waters. The townfolk won't eat them.
This seemingly odd behavior has a solid explanation. It lies in the raw sewage that gushes each day from overflowing septic tanks, outdoor privies and open drainage ditches into the creeks, streams and finally the Potomac.
"You can't sit on the front porch in the summertime," complained Linda Smith, proprietor of Helmick's general store. "You can always tell, when someone flushes the commode."
It is much the same in Oldtown, a few mountains away, where Seven Springs stream and Mill Run receive inadequately treated and untreated sewage before emptying into the river. Spring in Oldtown means' school ballfields and backyards awash with the foul-smelling liquid.
"Sewage runs right out in the damn road," said lifelong Oldtowner Ned Hose Jr.
"A menace to the health, safety and comfort of the public," declared state health officials. Something had to be done, they said.
So far more than a decade, the residents of this town 125 miles west of Washington have fought for sewage treatment plants. But the government that wants to help keeps getting in the way.
Faceless figures in faraway offices have decreed that archeological studies be done before a spade of earth is turned; endless questionnaires on construction plans be answered; and minority contractors be sought with advertisements in the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper since Allegancy County has so few nonwhites. Delays have nearly doubled the price of the two plants, stretching the citizens' meager resources to the limit.
As the wait to build their plants, the townspeople have become trapped by an ever-increasing number of well-meaning laws. Out of Annapolis comes the latest news that the House of Delegates passed legislation banning chlorine from sewage treatment plants in places like Flintstone and Oldtown. The legislators want to protect the trout. If passed, the law could send the planners back to the drawing board.
"If the regulation doesn't stop," grumbled Leslie J. Clark, attorney for the Allegany Sanitary Commission, "they're not gonna build anything."
Citing the bureaucracy, a major national builder of sewage treatment plants announced in January it would no longer seek government work. "Regulations promulgated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency," explained Robert Chambers, board chairman of Envirotech, "have made the municipal waste-water treatment business so risky and unprofitable that it is no longer practical to serve this market."
"It's a national problem," said Richard B. Sellers, a Maryland state health official who frequently visits the EPA regional office in an effort to break the logjams.
The federal agency officials disagree.
"We have no apologies to make," said EPA's Peter Acley. "Congress has tasked us with a number of changes in the program."
Bureaucratic deadlines have regularly come and gone for Flintstone and Oldtown. The sewage plants are now three years behind schedule and early cost estimates have nearly doubled to $1.6 million, far more money than the towns, with a combined population of 500, can afford.
Hoping the money could be found elsewhere, the residents of Flintstone and Oldtown first petitioned the county for sewage treatment plants back in 1970. But the county didn't have the money, either, and federal funds were out of the question until passage of the 1972 Water Pollution Control Act. Even then, they were not immediately available.
First there was a national funding freeze. Regulations on how to dispense the money were not issued until 1974.
With this information in hand, county officials reasoned, the two small towns, even with federal assistance, could not afford the plants. The county joined forces with the Allegany Board of Education that was planning to rebuild the Oldtown and Flintsone schools including construction of small sewage treatment plants to serve the students.
From then on, county officials raced against a summer 1978 deadline, hoping to start construction in March 1977 so the sewage treatment plants and schools would be ready at the same time.
County officials asked EPA in 1976 for a planning grant of $24,000 -- three-fourths of the initial costs. Under federal law the state and local citizens would pay the rest. But what the citizens could afford for the entire project was further limited by a state law to 25 percent of the towns' tax base.
The "bond limit is so low" and the tax base so modest, a state official cautioned that only 50 Oldtown homes would get sewer hookups at first. Sixty-four more families would pay the same user charge, however, in the hope of hooking up the sewer line 10 years down the road. In Flintstone -- where the school soccer team is a matter of pride as raw sewage is a source of shame -- a total of 72 homes would receive sewer service at once.
Trying to shave costs, county officials proposed in 1976 to use Allegany's own engineering department rather than hire expensive outside consultants. EPA balked, but, after months of delay and a Philadelphia summit meeting, it gave in.
But then when Allegany wanted to continue the practice in 1978, EPA again objected. Rules required the solicitation of outside bids, EPA said. a
"It is our belief," Allegancy sewer chief Joseph E. Strickland replied, "that there is no way we would be able to get outside engineering consultants to provide this urgently needed work cheaper, quicker or at a more cost-effective rate." EPA again relented.
Plans for the two treatment plants were finished by June 1977. Five months later, EPA noted several "areas of concern" requiring "additional work prior to approval."
For one thing, EPA wanted a copy of a public hearing transcript, which Strickland said had already been furnished. Then, the month when plans were completed, EPA issued new regulations. "In order to satisfy these requirements," EPA wrote, "additional information is requested."
While the bureaucrats argued back and forth, prices rose an estimated 22 percent from June 1977 to July 1979. EPA finally approved grants of $1.2 million to build the two plants last September, with strings.
The Maryland Historical Trust had argued for archeological studies in Oldtown and Flintstone since 1977. EPA ordered one for Oldtown. It must be completed and approved by federal authorities before the sewage treatment plant can be built, but not necessarily in the same place if precious artifacts are found.
"What happened 100 or 200 years ago, that's dead and gone," said Ned Hose, showing a visitor around Oldtown last week. "Hell, what happened 200 years ago ain't gonna help us any. You gotta look forward."
Federal approvals also hinge on Allegany's "good faith efforts" to seek minority firms for 10 to 25 percent of the work, although the country's nonwhite population is less than 3 percent.
Nevertheless, EPA insisted that the county advertise the Flintstone job not just in local newspapers but in the Baltimore Afro-American. "The local newspaper is available to all area groups, both minorities and majorities," Strickland wrote EPA. "We believe this is sufficient where the cost of publication is paid for by the local people. . . ."
Threatened with further delay, Strickland complied.In the added hope of attracting minorities, the bid opening was delayed from Feb. 26 to March 11.
Despite these efforts, at least one of the two successful bidders failed to obtain minority subcontractors, "We contacted five, but for most Allegany County is too far to travel," said Kevin Hite, of Carl Belt Inc., a local firm. "I'd have to raise my bid to pay them more to come here."
Whatever the reason, the low bids last Tuesday were $110,000 below the engineer's estimate of $915,000 -- the first good news in a long time.
Reality intruded: a fishermen's bill had sailed through the Maryland House March 3 by a vote of 122 to 4. The bill, also backed by the Maryland Fisheries Administration, would ban chlorine disinfectants in sewage treatment plants located on natural trout streams. Although the state stopped stocking the Oldtown runs a few years ago, according to Hose, Seven Springs is still classified as a "natural trout stream." And each spring in Flintstone Creek, which is still stocked, "there's two or three fishermen every ten feet," Sam Mitchell said.
So the Flintstone and Oldtown treatment plants, as now designed, would be banned by the new bill, although residents protest that raw sewage is much worse than chlorine. The preferred treatment, the bill's backers said, is an ultraviolet-ray system they say will cost less in the long run. Others disagreed.
"They better pray for the bill to pass," said Jim Gracie of Trout Unlimited which claims 500 Maryland members. "If it doesn't, they'll face adjudicatory and court proceedings, with us over their [chlorine] discharge permits."
Amidst this latest flap, threatening further delays, a certified letter from EPA arrived last Monday. Federal regulation 40 CFR 35.939-9, the letter said, requires construction to begin within one year of an award. Therefore, the letter said, if work on the Oldtown and Flintstone plants does not begin by September, "we must at that point consider termination or annulment of your grant."
"This would be, of course, a very serious eventuality," the letter said, "and one which we except you will take steps to avoid."