When Prince George's county officials approved a new $4 million sludge treatment facility they expected to solve problems, not create them. But before it officially opened its doors, the new plant was mired in management problems, overwhelmed by sludge and shut down as a public nuisance.

Maryland health officials ordered the Western Branch Composting Facility closed last month after finding the 45-acre plant was unfinished and was receiving more sludge than it could handle. The state also found faulty operations at the site and ordered its owner, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, to improve procedures before reopening.

WSSC officials have not yet determined the cost of the shutdown to customers, but said rates could be affected.

Further, Prince George's County Executive Lawrence Hogan insisted the commission remove the huge stockpile of compost at the plant, because of the "unbearable and sickening" odors the improperly processed material caused.

Prince George's officials blame the District of Columbia for at least part of Western Branch's problems, charging that the city sent the county an excessive amount of improperly processed sludge that ate asphalt and filled the air with an overpowering stench.

At issue is the Ph, or acid content of the sludge. Prince George's officials say the Ph should be higher, indicating less acid. D.C. officials contend it is within proper limits.

Western Branch's unhappy debut is a revealing look at the constant battle with sewage wastes faced by Washington's suburban counties. "We have sludge in such massive quantities that we're managing it on a crisis basis every day," said John Brusnighan, assistant director of the WSSC.

The sludge problem has been the source of a longstanding dispute among local governments in the area, and the Prince George's facility was built as a result of a 1978 court order requiring the county to take responsibility for handling its share of the sludge generated by Washington's Blue Plains sewage treatment plant.

But the time pressures imposed by the court order caused the Western Branch facility to be built "on a crash basis" last January and to accept sludge too soon, said Brusnighan. "The site was overloaded and underconstructed," he said. "Add to that the poor quality and the quantity of sludge , and we had a terrible problem."

The Western Branch plant consists of 45 acres of asphalt, where sludge is to be "cured" into compost by the addition of air and wood chips. County officials believe the facility's maiden effort failed because it was managed badly and accepted too much poor-quality sludge from the District.

"We were getting more than our fair share," complained Edward Piesen, of the county's programming and planning office. "The sludge was inferior with a Ph of 4. The acid was eating into the new asphalt."

D.C. sewage officials dispute the charge that they sent out poor sludge.

"We've never had sludge that left this plant with a Ph of 4," said an indignant George Stryker, assistant director of the D.C. Department of Environmental Services. "Our sludge is at least a 7 and usually an 8."

The acid problem was compounded by the summer heat, said Richard Hocevar, director of operations for WSSC, who acknowledged that incoming loads of sludge weren't monitored properly.

Stryker said the District trucked an average of 643 tons of sludge each day to Prince George's. This exceeds the 520 daily tons the county agreed to take under a court-ordered plan between the District and its surrounding counties.

Shutting down the composting facility solved only half of WSSC's immediate problem. Instead of selling the compost for fertilizer, as had been originally planned, the commission was forced to dump it quickly in gravel pits and over park land throughout Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties.

The county Park and Planning Board agreed to use almost half of the mound for fill at the Sandy Hill reclamation area near Bowie, but citizen complaints over the truck traffic and odor forced the board to halt the operation.

"People thought it was sludge and were calling their congressmen," Brusnighan related. "People were yelling and the phones were going crazy."

Next, the WSSC moved a portion to a former gravel pit on Queen Anne Bridge Road in Upper Marlboro, but irate residents of the country road halted the operation after discovering the commission had neglected to get the necessary state permit to dump the compost.

The WSSC conceded it didn't seek permits to transport the compost to Bowie or Upper Marlboro, partly because it needed to move the material quickly. "I thought compost didn't need a sludge hauling permit," Brusnighan said.

State health authorities say the sanitary commission broke the law, but add that the fine for the commission's offense is so small that is it not worth the cost to prosecute.

The haulers also mistakenly dumped some of the compost in the wrong spot at the B & C Land Clearing Company in Annapolis. State health officials ordered the 214 tons dumped too close to a water source to be moved to the proper spot.

"That was stupidity," said Piesen of the error. "They just weren't very careful."

A few things did go right. Some of the compost mountain has been sold to landscapers for $8,000. Final construction is underway at the Western Branch facility and it may be reopened in November.

"We're hoping we learned from our disaster at Western Branch and can put it back together," Brusnighan said, asserting that once construction is finished and the operations manual followed, the plant will handle the county's sludge successfully.

But county executive Hogan isn't so sure. The Western Branch experience, he told the commission, is further proof that the region "desperately" needs a high technology facility near the District's Blue Plains sewage treatment plant to handle sludge, so that emergency facilities such as Western Branch can be closed.