Sludge keeps coming. Whether it rains or snows. Whether the Redskins win or lose. No matter who gets elected. Every single day. And you have to put someplace." -- Criag Coker, environmental planner, Montgomery County government.
Montgomery County's newest "someplace" may soon be a former cornfield in Dickerson.
A placid farm town of 200 people beside the Potomac River and the B&O Railroad tracks, and just south of the Frederick County line, Dickerson is about to become the site of the largest sludge composting plant on the East Coast.
On 273 acres that were Edwin and Julia Matthews' farm until last month, earthmovers are rapidly preparing a site that will handle at least 400 wet tons of sludge a day by Feb. 1.
The sludge will be trucked from the Blue Plains sewage treatment plant in Southwest Washington, although it may be hauled by rail later. Four hundred tons represents half the trended solid human waste produeced in the Washington area every day. h
At the Dickerson site, for which the county paid the Matthews family $1.5 million, the sludge will be mixed with wood chips and set out to cure on a 38-acre pad. Time and exposure to the air will rid the mixture of bacteria and much of its ever-so-distinctive aroma.Then the chips will be filtered out, and compost will be sold as fertilizer.
That, at least, is how the scenario is supposed to play out. but all it takes is a drive along Maryland Rte. 28, near the entrance to the $7 million composting plant, to sample Dickerson's determination to rewrite the last act.
A Burma Shave-style series of signs has been erected beside the road by the Sugarloaf Citizens Association, a coalition of sludge opponents named for Sugarloaf Mountain, the craggy peak that overlooks Dickerson.
Their message reads:
Around the corner lickety split beware the red trucks that are filled WITH!
The exclamation point is the association's bow to delicacy. But there is nothing delicate in the membership's view of what is about to happen to their community. As Bob Jones, a community opponent of the plant, puts it: "If we are meek, we will inherit the muck. And if we inherit it, this community is in a lot of trouble."
"Because there aren't very many of us (only about 400 people live within one square mile of the composting site), they think it's all right to drive 400 trucks a day through our community, to do whatever they want here," said Sally Dilonardo, who has lived on Dickerson Church Road for 27 years.
"They are trying to make us the Montgomery County dump."
The first step along that path may have been taken 24 years ago, when the Potomac Electric Power Company built a coal-fired generating plant just north of the composting site.
The three smokestacks at the Pepco plant have rivaled Sugarloaf for prominence on the Dickerson skyline ever since. On clear days, the stacks are visible for 15 miles. meanwhile, an ash heap two stories high and half a city block wide sits beside them, and trucks rumble into the Pepco grounds along two-lane Martinburg Road all day long.
Dickerson would also have been the home of an advanced wastewater treatment plant if the Sugarloaf association, among other groups, had not mounted opposition in 1973. The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission withdrew the proposal under threat of a lawsuit. Similarly, a sludge trenching site just down Martinsburg Road was proposed by the county government two years ago, but was retracted after Dickerson citizens complained bitterly of being singled out.
But the Sugarloaf association has not won them all, and members fear that as long as there is an ash heap on the Pepco property, and trucks arriving and departing, the way is psychologically clear for county officials to place still more unpleasant industry in the community.
"They can say, 'look, we're not ruining anything. The stacks and the trucks are already there. And those people don't count, anyway,'" said one Dickerson resident.
Thus, to Dickerson, the enemy is not sludge itself, "for we are willing to take our fair share of it here; say, 60 tons a day," says Steve Quarles, president of the Sugarloaf association and a deputy undersecretary in the Department of the Interior.
The fear is that the composting plant will help turn Dickerson's western edge into a vast industrial ghetto -- home to the Pepco plant, the composting plant, a nearly built Pepco ash-dumping site and a proposed trash-burning facility -- without formal zoning changes or consideration for Dikerson's county lifestyle.
The only positive side of such a build-up, says George Kephart Jr., a Sugarloaf leader, would be that "the land won't become subdivisions. But that's a hell of a Catch-22, isn't it?"
Nor would it be the only one. Dickersonians are quick to point out that the sludge that will be brought into their community won't even be partly theirs, since their toilets hook into septic tanks, not the county's sewer system.
Meanwhile, they are concerned at the price the county paid for the Matthews farm. Local real estate dealers say it was at least one-third more than the land would have sold for if it were going to remain a farm.Residents are concerned that their assessments will rise more sharply than they would have without the $1.5 million selling price.
Finally, residents are worried that, because the Dickerson facility is officially called temporary by the county government, will not include covered storage areas or an emergency sewer drainage system.
Why not ask that they be installed? "Because then the place will become permanent," Quarles explains.
Montgomery County's master sludge plan calls for a permanent $34 million composting plant to be built in Calverton by late 1982, and for Dickerson to close. However, five lawsuits filed by Prince George's County residents and officials have bottled up construction of that plant since 1977. The suits allege that the Calverton site, about a mile west of the Montgomery-Prince George's border, may pollute the groundwater or nostrils of several Prince George's communities. A member of the Prince George's County attorney's office said the issue is expected to be resolved early in 1981, although he said it could be delayed by further legal maneuvering.
"We would very much like to shut down the Dickerson facility in March 1982 and open Calverton," said the county government's Coker. "But I'm not going to say that Dickerson will absolutely, without question be torn out of the ground then. We may need it longer. It depends on what the courts do."
"We don't believe for a second that this is going to be an interim facility," said Quarles. He noted that County Executive Charles Gilchrist asked that the Dickerson site be studied for permanent use in the same letter in which Gilchrist recommended that it be temporary. "It doesn't take a genius to figure out the writing on the wall," Quarles said.
Dickerson's relations with Rockville were frosty long before the composting issue arose, according to several veteran residents.
Reeva Jones, a Dickersonian for 22 years, recalls the county official who once telephoned a neighbor of hers to announce that he was "coming up to look at something or other.
"My neighbor told him to turn right at the two blue silos. He said, 'What's a silo"' That's how much understanding they have of what life is like up here."
Indeed, Dickerson is sharply oriented toward Frederick County. Most Dickersonians shop at Frederick's malls, and only seldom in Poolesville or Germantown. Mention a newspaper called The Post, and residents will assume you mean the one that's published in Frederick.
The Sugarloaf association has urged that the Dickerson facility not be approved by the Maryland Environmental Service until MES can certify that no damage to Dickerson's underground water source will occur. MES is expected to issue an opinion within a few days.
Quarles said that Sugarloaf is contemplating a law -- suit to block the composting plant from opening if MES refuses to certify its safety. Spokesmen for the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council said that there is no hard evidence that sludge composting poses a danger to water sources -- but no evidence that it doesn't, either.
As far alternatives, Sugarloaf suggests building a composting plant for the entire Washington area at Blue Plains, or smaller plants at sites all around Montgomery County.
"We'd love to go into Blue Plains, but we coldn't have anything on line there until 1985," said Coker. "And I always hear, 'Why don't you put it in Bethesda? Where are you going to find 273 acres in Bethesda? Where are you going to find cheap land anywhere in this county?"
Meanwhile, Julia Matthews interrupted her packing one day last week to tell a visitor that she was "indeed sorry to see the farm go, and to see us go." She and her husband have bought a farm in Frederick County.
"But we've lived with the Pepco plant here in Dickerson all these years," Matthews said. "I guess people will live with this, too."