Montgomery County officials said this week that if a proposed admendment barring the county from dumping sludge in residential areas is approved by voters on Nov. 4, they do not know what they will do with the 500 tons of sludge produced each day.
An exasperated Charles A. Maier, the county's spokesman, said the proposed amendment "probably can't miss at the polls."
Maier added, "We have contemplated trying everything short of putting (the sludge) on abandoned Pentagon rockets and shooting it toward the sun, praying that it will burn up."
Petitions against sludge dumping, or "trenching," organized by Del. Robin Ficker (R-Montgomery), drew 15,000 signatures and last week earned a spot on the county ballott -- sticking a thorn in the side of county officials.
County officials are legally bound to dispose of about 25 percent of the 1,500 tons of sludge produced daily by the Blue Plains Regional Sewage Treatment Plant.
Because of numerous delays during the past five years in plans to build a composting facility in Montgomery County, Montgomery and Prince George's counties have alternated burying the sludge.
"The county has never wanted to trench and it's doing everything in its power to avoid trenching, but because of court cases and citizen opposition to the Calverton site (of the proposed composting facility), we have had no choice," said county environmental planner Chuck Murray.
Currently, about 500 tons of sludge a day are buried on a 22-acre site off Schaeffer Road in Germantown. Planners said the site would probably be full by October. Prince George's County officials will then take over the trenching for a couple of months, returning responsibility for disposal to Montgomery in January.
County planners said that at that time they hope an interim composting plant planned for the Dickerson area in the northern part of the county will have been built and granted an operating permit from state health department been built and granted an operating permit from state health department officials.
The plant was proposed earlly this summer when it became apparent that there was intense citizen opposition to three proposed trenching sites in the Germantown area.
If the composting plant is granted a permit to operate, county planners said the anti-trenching amendment, which does not cover composting, would be virtually invalidated. Planners conceded, however, that some Dickerson residents are opposed to the composting project and may seek to halt its approval in court. If they succeed, officials said they may have no alternative but to continue burying the sludge -- in residential areas.
The action would run up against the anti-treching amendment, if it is approved. Montgomery County Attorney Nathan Greenbaum said he was uncertain of county officials' response if the measure passes, but said they would probably oppose it on constitutional grounds.
"We feel it is an unlawful attempt to restrict county zoning laws," Greenbaum said.
The battle over where to bury sludge is nothing new to the county. Since Montgomery began trenching more than five years ago, nearly 600,000 tons of sludge have been buried on county property.
Each time a new site was proposed, legions of nearby residents descended upon county officials, demanding that they abandon the plans because of potential health hazards, stench and decreased property values.
"Sludge is not a product anybody enjoys taking care of, but it is a necessary by-product of the sewage treatment process. If this . . . (anti-trenching amendment) passes, we face the possibility of a public health crisis," said Greenbaum.
The county is challenging a similar measure sponsored two years ago by Del. Ficker barring the county from operating landfills in residential areas. That case is still in court.
The county council will hold a public hearing to discuss the Dickerson composting facility Monday at 8 p.m. in the County Office Building in Rockville.