PRINCESS ANNE — The Patapsco aquifer — already an aggravation for local and state leaders attempting to resolve a water shortage in Somerset County — has become a curiosity, preoccupation and perhaps even a case study for environmental officials wondering where ammonia and phosphorus came from.
“We’ve discovered there’s ammonia and phosphorus in the aquifer and it affects the wastewater treatment plant,” says Ellen Frketic, chief of the engineering division of water operations at the Maryland Environmental Service. “We’re trying to figure it out.”
She addressed a panel of local and state officials who met Monday in Princess Anne to continue discussions regarding potential solutions to fluoride in the Patapsco that the Maryland Department of the Environment says exceeds acceptable levels for drinking.
The panel, trying to solve a Somerset County water shortage and identify a new source of the resource, discussed three options: Drink Patapsco water as it is, despite current fluoride level of four milligrams per liter; blend the water with other sources to dilute fluoride levels; or channel the water through a treatment called reverse osmosis — a process that has been estimated to cost more than $13 million.
But Frketic, whose MES manages Patapsco as a source of drinking water for the Eastern Correctional Institution near Princess Anne, said a recent discovery of ammonia and phosphorus has MDE puzzled, and officials are now working to uncover the mystery of the substances they say are rarely found in aquifers.
“It’s not unusual to find ammonia in wastewater, but not in well water,” Frketic said after the meeting. “With a new (reverse osmosis) system, the more efficient operations will be and the more concentrated ammonia and phosphorus would be in the Manokin River.”
MDE plans to study the issue and recommend a treatment for substances that would not impact the drinking water supply, but rather, an excess of the substances as runoff into the Manokin River, she said. That study comes as MDE also reviews the impact of fluoride in the aquifer on shellfish, she also said.
Robin Street, manager of the Somerset County Sanitary District that manages water and sewer for county users outside ECI, favors the option of drinking Patapsco water as it is. “It is the least costly and already funded and is approximately 90 percent designed,” he told the panel.
He and other county officials have maintained that Patapsco water is safe even untreated and are suing MDE for denying well permits.
Blending, Street told the panel, “is expensive but not to the extent that reverse osmosis would (be),” although the option would, among other things, limit the amount of water that could undergo the mixing process.
The reverse osmosis treatment, at $13 million, is too costly, Street says and could be an undue burden on taxpayers.
A possible fourth option to solving the water shortage would be to grant management of proposed county wells to the quasi-governmental MES that already is planning a new water plant for ECI that involves blending and reverse osmosis treatment.
Meeting facilitator David Nemazie said blending water and treating the water through reverse osmosis could be a possible fourth option.
The option also could partner Somerset County and MES which could build a joint plant and save in construction costs, some officials agreed.
It was the second joint meeting between officials from MES, Somerset County, Princess Anne, the University of Maryland Eastern Shore and the Maryland departments of the Environment and Planning working to resolve the water shortage that more than a year ago triggered a county moratorium on major construction projects and blocked new housing and property tax revenue.
MES and MDE officials agreed to meet for a cost analysis of the reverse osmosis option. Saeid Kasrael, an MDE program manager, said he believed the cost to build a reverse osmosis plant might be a fraction of the multimillion-dollar price tag Somerset officials anticipate.
Princess Anne Town Manager Jay Parker inquired about the town’s role in a combined initiative involving ECI, MES and Somerset County. “What would be the relationship?” Parker asked. “The town of Princess Anne would become smaller and smaller.”