McGlone’s new vision blurred on wastewater disposal issue
I love Rehoboth Beach, the Atlantic Ocean and Rehoboth Bay. After growing up in Rehoboth, I returned with an engineering degree from the University of Delaware and became a professional engineer working for Sussex County in the early 1970s to provide centralized wastewater service in the coastal area that would help protect our Inland Bays.
I moved to Baltimore in 1977 to study environmental law at night while continuing to work as an environmental engineer planning large wastewater facilities for Maryland counties. Last year I returned to Rehoboth after practicing environmental law (including representation of municipal and private wastewater dischargers) for 30 years in Washington, D.C. and Baltimore.
As a property owner registered to vote in the upcoming Rehoboth election, I recently received a flyer in the mail sent on behalf of Tom McGlone, a candidate for mayor of Rehoboth. It depicted a toilet on the beach and extolled the virtues of spray irrigation while condemning an ocean outfall.
Given my background in wastewater engineering and environmental law, my interest was piqued. And now, as a semi-retired professional in the field, I had the time and wherewithal to dig into the recent history concerning the city’s ocean outfall project.
I interviewed Sam Cooper and Kathy McGuiness, both of whom voted for the ocean outfall in 2009, as well as Mr. McGlone, who was noticeably absent from the outfall decision-making. I also spoke with officials from Artesian and Tidewater, the private companies who would like to provide a land application alternative to the city - for a profit of course.
However, I found the most pertinent information on the wastewater disposal issue in the voluminous record for the Environmental Impact Statement prepared by the city in 2012 (available on the city’s website), which evaluated the ocean outfall against four land application technologies, including spray irrigation, in a comprehensive scientific and public process.
Having conducted the due diligence described above, and given my educational background and work experience in the wastewater field, I believe I may have something to offer to voters about the ocean outfall debate that has become the number one issue in the August 9 election for the city’s mayor and two commissioner seats.
In my view, there have been a number of provocative allegations made publicly by Mr. McGlone that may appear somewhat persuasive at first blush but, upon further inspection, are misleading, incomplete or inconsistent with what true professional wastewater and water quality experts have concluded.
Mr. McGlone contends that he is against the ocean outfall project and pursuit of it should be re-evaluated because, in his opinion as a financial advisor with no scientific background or apparent engineering support, spray irrigation of the city’s treated wastewater is a better solution.
However, a careful review of the 2012 EIS record discloses that the city commissioners have been grappling with the wastewater disposal issue since at least 2003. They retained nationally-recognized wastewater engineering and water quality experts to study and compare the construction of an ocean outfall to various land application technologies, including spray irrigation.
This process was driven by a legally-binding administrative consent order that the city entered with the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control in 2002, mandating the elimination of the city’s wastewater discharge into the Lewes-Rehoboth Canal not later than the end of 2014.
In December 2009, after the technical studies were completed and numerous public workshops, meetings and hearings were held, the city’s seven elected commissioners (four of whom are still in office) voted unanimously to proceed with an ocean outfall alternative that would discharge and disperse the city’s treated wastewater in 40 feet of water more than a mile into the Atlantic Ocean. This decision was based on what the wastewater and water quality experts advised concerning the safety, reliability, environmental impact, cost-effectiveness and impact on city utility ratepayers.
The commissioners’ decision was further evaluated and subjected to public and agency scrutiny in 2012, resulting in a final EIS document that concluded the ocean outfall was the “most technically feasible, cost-effective and environmentally friendly alternative for the City of Rehoboth.”
It is significant that Michael Izzo, the Sussex County engineer, advocated the ocean outfall over spray irrigation for the city in comments he filed for the EIS record in May 2012. Mr. Izzo’s letter makes clear that he is a licensed professional engineer with many years of practical experience with both spray irrigation and ocean outfalls given that the county operates three spray irrigation systems and one ocean outfall.
There is no dispute among the qualified water quality experts opining in the EIS record that discharging Rehoboth’s tertiary-treated wastewater (resembling drinking water) into the ocean at the location and depth described above is safe for public health and the environment.
Comprehensive ocean modeling conducted by water quality experts demonstrates that a dilution factor of 10,000 or more would be achieved within several hundred feet of the diffuser constructed at the end of the pipeline.
Perhaps the best evidence of the safety of the ocean outfall alternative is the experience of the South Coastal Ocean Outfall near Bethany Beach that is located a similar distance from shore and has been discharging substantially larger volumes of treated wastewater for the past 35 years or more. As Mr. Izzo observed, the Bethany and Ocean City outfalls “have operated for many years without impact to tourism, fisheries, or the beaches.”
While spray irrigation and other forms of land application of treated wastewater are technically feasible in locations where there are large tracts (hundreds of acres) of isolated agricultural land that can be committed to receive large quantities of the wastewater over 50-100 years, such operations must be closely monitored for the accumulation of nutrients and other trace contaminants in the soils and underlying groundwater.
As good as spray irrigation might sound, the reality is that the soil and crops grown on land irrigated with nutrient-laden wastewaters do not capture all of the nitrogen, phosphorous and other trace contaminants currently not regulated that are found in the treated wastewater. These constituents are released to the underlying groundwater (that may be used for drinking water) and ultimately end up in downstream creeks and embayments in the watershed such as Love Creek, the Broadkill River or Rehoboth Bay, and ultimately the Atlantic Ocean.
Moreover, the EIS record discloses that the cost to build, operate and maintain pumping stations, pipelines, storage lagoons and land application equipment located 10 miles or more inland from Rehoboth Beach is at least 50-100 percent more expensive than the long-term cost of the ocean outfall.
The claim by Mr. McGlone that the outfall will cost $36 million to construct while spray irrigation costs $33 million to build is grossly misleading because it overstates the capital cost of the outfall in the EIS record by more than $9 million and fails to mention that the operating expense associated with the Artesian Wastewater Management Inc. preliminary cost estimate he relies upon is $1,000,000 per year compared to the $150,000 per year operating expense for the ocean outfall.
Mr. McGlone states that the ocean outfall decision by the city should be reevaluated by issuance of a request for proposals to private wastewater vendors. However, when the city issued an RFP to the private wastewater companies to present specific land application project proposals in 2008, it did not receive any bids that were competitive in cost or included sufficient engineering specificity to merit serious consideration.
Indeed, if there were proposals from private vendors supported by engineering reports demonstrating that spray irrigation or other land application technologies are more cost-effective to city users (considering both capital and operating costs and control of escalating user rates), they could and should already have been presented to the city without waiting for another RFP process.
Mr. McGlone’s suggestion that the city unilaterally delay implementation of its wastewater disposal decision to conduct yet another time-consuming RFP process to re-evaluate land disposal options puts the city at risk to penalties and court orders for intentionally violating the consent order with DNREC.
My review of the city’s wastewater decision-making record over the past 13 years did not find any objection to the ocean outfall project at public meetings or public hearings by Mr. McGlone who now vehemently opposes the 2009 outfall decision made by seven sitting commissioners who listened to the experts and public officials before making their unanimous decision.
It cannot be said that Mr. McGlone is a newcomer who did not know about the city’s ongoing debate and decision-making process since he admits to being a full-time city resident since 2005. However, now that an election looms, Mr. McGlone is circulating brochures with toilets depicted on our beautiful beach and saying the city needs to start over with an RFP process to once again re-evaluate spray irrigation, meanwhile promoting a public perception that the city plans to dump raw sewage in the ocean.
Finally, Mr. McGlone’s claim that discharging the city’s treated wastewater to the ocean will “drain aquifers” and “waste valuable fresh water” confirms a fundamental misunderstanding on his part of the hydrologic cycle in southern Delaware.
We are blessed with plentiful groundwater in the Rehoboth Bay Watershed where, according to calculations found in the 2012 EIS record performed by Dr. William Ullman, a professor of marine and geological sciences at the University of Delaware and the former chair of the Scientific and Technical Committee for the Center for the Inland Bays: (1) annual recharge (the amount of precipitation that becomes groundwater) greatly exceeds yearly consumptive use; (2) there currently is sufficient water storage in the underlying aquifer to supply water use for 17,800 years even assuming no recharge; and (3) the annual groundwater recharge exceeds the amount of wastewater that would be discharged to the ocean outfall by 900 times.
Mr. McGlone’s suggestion that the city’s relatively miniscule ocean outfall discharge will drain or even diminish our aquifers is either an uninformed misstatement or a miscalculated scare tactic. Either way, I submit that we need city leaders who truly do their “homework” and refrain from making such inaccurate remarks.
Roger Truitt Esq., P.E.
Truitt Environmental Solutions LLC