SNOW HILL — As the result of a Maryland Department of the Environment fee levied on the Ocean Pines Sanitary Service Area, residents will receive a $15 bump in their sewer bills this June. The $2.50 per-user-per-month fee is applied to users of facilities with heightened nitrogen levels as part of a mechanism for funding the Bay Restoration Fund. Although many jurisdictions pay this fee, users in the Ocean Pines area have been exempt from it because of the plant’s efficiency.
The fee was imposed after the treatment plant failed to meet MDE standards for nitrogen content in January and February 2011.
Jennifer Savage, who runs the County’s Enterprise Fund, told the Commissioners that the two months overage was attributable to cold weather that prevented sufficient pollutant processing. State standards place the maximum at 3.0 milligrams of nitrogen per liter. The Ocean Pines plant averaged 3.68 for January and February. It has since returned to well below normal.
While this is the second time i the plant has missed the standard, in 2008 the offending months were set aside by the MDE as outliers and the fee not applied. This time the MDE refused to set the fine aside. Savage provided correspondence between her office and the MDE. In her explanation she recounted the 2008 incident wherein the MDE said that since the average water temperature for the months in question was below 12 degrees centigrade (about 56 degrees) it was “not feasible” to expect nitrogen extraction at or below 3 mg/l.
In the intervening years MDE policy has changed to no longer take temperature into account, according to the documents Savage provided.
Commissioner Judy Boggs asked Savage what could be done to reverse the decision.
“I think we should appeal it to whomever we need to appeal it to,” she said. Boggs also suggested that the County withhold payment until they had exhausted their options.
While the rest of the Commissioners agreed that the decision should be appealed, deciding not to pay the MDE was a tougher sell.
“I think [if we do that] we’re going to have a problem that we should’ve taken care of today,” said Commissioner Bud Church.
He pointed out that the hit would be bigger to ratepayers if the County lost their appeal.
The commissioners elected to collect the $15 per-user in the next billing and hold it in escrow until the state rendered their final decision. Should the county prevail they will be able to refund that amount to the ratepayers.
Boggs worried that, once lost, it would be difficult to reinstate the plant’s exemption from the Bay Restoration Fund but Savage told her the exemption is available every year and that Ocean Pines was on target to be well below the maximum for 2012.