Holding waste for treatment has own set of problems
By Greg Ellison
(Feb. 13, 2020) Replacing hundreds of concrete and plastic water holding tanks to prevent sewage spills in Ocean Pines was examined during the Worcester County Water and Sewer Advisory Council meeting on Monday.
Worcester County Public Works Director John Tustin said work over the past decade has decreased the number of concrete tanks from 765 in 2006 to 496 presently, while plastic tanks have been reduced from 790 to 555.
“We’ve been replacing a lot of the older holding tanks, which has reduced the amount of infiltration, both groundwater and rainwater, into the system tremendously,” he said.
Ocean Pines Service Area Water and Wastewater Advisory Board member Fred Stiehl, noting 30 tanks were replaced last year, asked what basis those were selected for updating.
Worcester County Deputy Director of Public Works John Ross said both concrete and plastic tanks are prone to developing cracks that allow water seepage.
“Generally it’s because of roots [and] those tanks will get a crack in them,” he said.
Ross said the abundance of growth in Ocean Pines adds further difficulty.
“All these trees and landscaping heads straight for that crack in the tank because they love that stuff,” he said. “Concrete and hydrogen sulfide gas do not get along.”
Ross said when tanks become clogged with roots homeowners start experiencing backed up sewer lines.
“There’s a backlog of these tanks to be replaced,” he said.
Ross said while awaiting replacement, regular tank maintenance to address invasive roots is performed with ongoing monitoring.
“In the last 15 years we have 500 odd tanks we have replaced,” he said. “If we continue at that pace, we will have all replaced in 24 years.”
Ocean Pines resident Joe Reynolds said despite those efforts to address leaky holding tanks the picture remains far from satisfactory.
“They overflow in people’s yards where their children play,” he said. “This is not part treated sewage, this is raw untreated.”
Reynolds said during extreme rain events vacuum lines inside holding tanks open and begin pulling out water.
“When that water is being sucked out of those broken tanks that vacuum line stays open into those tanks,” he said. “Tanks further down the line receive no vacuum and therefore are not pumped out.”
If the situation is prolonged tanks connected further down the line begin overflowing, Reynolds said.
“Most people in this community who have the problem where they have raw sewage overflowing on their property don’t know it’s happening because it’s … in a wet environment,” he said.
Reynolds said in at least one instance partially treated sewage was released into the St. Martin River.
“To say it’s going to take another 24 years, I don’t know how you can come in here and say that with a straight face,” he said. “These things need to be fixed [and] they need to be fixed now.”
While not disputing those facts, Ross noted there are now alarm systems to monitor the situation.
“We do get a heads up whenever there’s a stuck vacuum valve,” he said. “We’ve made a lot of strides in keeping that from happening.”
Although acknowledging those diligent efforts, Reynolds said the potential health concern needs to be solved.
“Mitigation of raw sewage is not acceptable [and] we want raw sewage to be eliminated from peoples’ yards,” he said. “For God’s sake replace the tanks.”
Stiehl asked about the potential cost to replace the entire list of remaining concrete and plastic tanks.
“We need to understand how often this happens,” he said. “It is worthwhile doing if we have raw sewage running down the streets of Ocean Pines.”
For now, Ross said the county, while committed to replacing tanks, maintains that the work would take an extensive amount of time.
“The position we’ve taken is this is going to be handled over a long period,” he said.