In the 1950s, newlyweds Mildred and Alan Quidas lucked into buying what seemed to be one of the best pieces of farmland in Maryland’s Caroline County: more than 300 acres of sandy loam backing to a creek that feeds into the Choptank River. They planted cucumbers, tomatoes and peas, and hoped to leave the place to their grandchildren.
Now, more than two decades after Alan died, Mildred and her daughter, Arlene Stevens, worry their land is becoming less valuable because of a sewage treatment plant built with state approval at a mobile home park just upstream. Prettyman Manor’s permit allows it to discharge up to 20,000 gallons of treated wastewater daily into Little Creek, a tributary lined with wildflowers that flows past the pond used to irrigate crops on the Quidas land.
County and state officials call the treatment plant a major improvement, as it replaced a longtime failing septic system at the mobile home park. But Quidas and Stevens say it creates a wastewater discharge where none existed before, and it has already impacted the viability of their farmland.
Quidas, now 85, no longer raises crops herself; she shares profits and expenses with another farmer, who cultivates the land in a share-cropping arrangement. But that grower lost one of his largest customers, who wouldn’t buy cucumbers from any farm downstream of a wastewater discharge. Quidas quickly switched to raising potatoes, finding a customer who was more amenable to buying a vegetable grown underground from an upstream discharge. The potato crop is far less valuable, she said, and limits her ability to rotate crops and one day return to the more high-dollar produce, like cucumbers and peas.
She and her daughter hired an attorney to fight the state over the discharge permit and to fight the county for allowing Franklin Prettyman to build the plant too close to the creek, in an area zoned for conservation.
“My income is way down, I’m drawing a lot of money out of my annuity, and I don’t want to have to empty it,” said Quidas, who is recovering from chemotherapy for Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She and her daughter contend they got no notice that the Maryland Department of the Environment was preparing to permit a wastewater discharge into their creek, and that deprived them of an opportunity to oppose it.
The MDE is required to provide public notice in newspapers when a new plant is being built. Stevens said the notice ran in papers in a different part of the county, so she and her mother didn’t see them. In the past, she said, when Prettyman made changes to his property, they received a letter at their home. They did not get one this time.
Prettyman, a former county commissioner who has owned the property since the 1960s, contends that Quidas and Stevens are acting out of “jealousy” of his business success. He said that he spent “$1.5 million of my own money to fix something that wasn’t broken” when he put in the new plant, in addition to the $300,000 a year it cost to haul the waste to Hurlock before he built the new system.
But the old septic system was broken, according to the state and county. Prettyman had been under a consent order with the MDE since 2012 to stop using the failing system and truck the waste elsewhere. According to the order, it presented a risk of “immediate, substantial and irreparable injury” to anyone who might be exposed to dangerous pathogens from domestic sewage.
The Prettyman Manor situation illustrates the difficulty rural counties in Maryland face as septic systems built decades ago fail and homeowners and communities lack the resources to fix them. Though the state can issue fines and even order the shutdown of failing systems in small towns and private mobile home communities, it is reluctant to do so because the residents often have nowhere else to go.
Forcing a cleanup via the courts can take decades, with the remedies often costing the state millions of dollars.
In northern Caroline County, failing household septic systems in the town of Goldsboro polluted a private campground’s lake nearby, forcing its closure for health reasons. The problem festered for more than 40 years until officials finally came up with a plan, underwritten with $19 million in state funds, to upgrade a wastewater treatment plant in the nearby town of Greensboro and extend a pipeline from it about five miles to collect the waste from about 100 Goldsboro residences. Septic systems continue to fail in three other northern Caroline communities, though, because officials have yet to find enough funds to extend the pipeline to them.
Both Gov. Larry Hogan and his predecessor, Martin O’Malley, have favored hooking up failing septic systems to public water and sewer, though Hogan has rolled back O’Malley’s restrictions on new developments with septic systems.
Last year, the state used nearly $2 million in Open Space funds to buy a Calvert County trailer park with a history of septic failures. And state officials last year approved spending $34 million to extend sewer lines to connect more than 1,500 homes on southern Kent Island, which has been under a decades-long building moratorium because of failing septic systems there.
At Prettyman Manor, state and local officials saw the sewage plant as a solution to a long-simmering problem. The mobile home park’s drainfield generally functioned properly in the summer, according to county environmental health officer Don Wilson. But in the wet season, raw sewage would pond on the surface.
“We finally said, ‘This is enough.’ We prepared a court case,” Wilson said. “It was bad. It’s a whole lot better now.”
At first, Prettyman collected the mobile homes’ waste and trucked it to be treated at a municipal wastewater plant in nearby Hurlock. But he warned county officials in 2012 that the expense “could bankrupt me since it costs more to do this than I get in rentals monthly not even counting the other expenses to operate my business.”
He asked Caroline officials to connect Prettyman Manor to a wastewater treatment plant. When they didn’t, he built his own.
The MDE required it to meet enhanced nutrient removal limits. But for the first four months after it began operating last October, the plant violated its permit, discharging excessive nitrogen and phosphorus into the creek, according to MDE spokesman Jay Apperson. The plant’s wastewater contained up to 11 times the allowable amount of phosphorus one month, and nearly 50 percent more nitrogen than permitted another time.
The plant has met discharge limits since February, according to Apperson. State regulators are still weighing whether to fine Prettyman for violating the consent order, he said.
The MDE also wrote Prettyman in May warning that only 32 of the 80 home sites had been fully connected to the plant. That’s partly because most of the sewer lines are too small to convey all the of waste. If that isn’t fixed, the state says it can fine Prettyman $100 a day.
Prettyman’s engineer maintains that the homes are hooked up properly. The department is now reviewing whether the plant is in compliance, Apperson said.
It’s unclear how the county missed that Prettyman built the plant in a different place than where it was supposed to be. The approved location was much farther from the creek, making any plant malfunction or spill less likely to enter the waterway.
John Koontz, the investigator the Quidas family hired to look into the matter, called the mistaken location “incredible.”
“Imagine if someone built a hotel in downtown Denton and didn’t have proper zoning,” he said. “I have no idea why they failed to take appropriate action.”
Katheleen Freeman, Caroline County’s director of planning and codes, said that Prettyman filed plans for one location and started digging in another.
The mobile home park owner and his engineering firm indicated in correspondence that they do not plan to move the plant; Freeman believes they may have to.
“The county is not interested in trying to work something out,” she said. “They built it in the wrong place. There is a violation out there.”
Prettyman insists he’s not responsible for any mistakes the county may have made in letting him build the treatment plant too close to the creek. As for his history of failing septic tanks, which dates back to at least 2005 according to county officials, Prettyman said: “I didn’t come in here from El Salvador or Pakistan and build a business...I was born on this property, and I swam on the creek, and I have grandchildren here, so I am certainly not for polluting the creek.”
But while the state and county may conclude that hooking up failing septic systems to a sewer plant is better for the environment, Quidas and Stevens say that’s not the case for their creek, their land or their business.
“Now you have a discharge that wasn’t there before,” Stevens said. “You can’t tell me it’s better than what it was.”