The public comment period on the Rehoboth Beach ocean outfall project is officially closed, but that doesn’t mean opponents are giving up.
With Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control Secretary Colin O’Mara expected to soon make a decision on whether to accept the city’s environmental impact statement, the Marine Education, Research and Rehabilitation Institute started a petition urging O’Mara to rule against the outfall.
“Rehoboth Beach has been known for its beautiful beaches and good water quality, thanks in part to DNREC who has successfully championed clean water initiatives in the past. But this would change once 1,000,000 to 7,000,000 gallons of effluent is spewed into our oceans each and every day,” the petition says.
MERR opposes the outfall because, the petition says, of its potential harmful effects on plankton and other organisms due to chlorine and other pharmaceuticals in the treated effluent.
The petition, which has been closed, gathered 165 signatures, something MERR director Suzanne Thurman hopes O’Mara will take into account when making his decision. Thurman said the petition was a way to give people a chance to have a say without having to write a letter.
“Our objective was to give the public an opportunity to weigh in, in a way that wasn’t overwhelming,” she said
Rehoboth was required by DNREC to put together an environmental impact statement in order to receive state funding for the $30 million project. The study was compiled by engineering firm GHD, which recommended, as it has all along, that ocean outfall was the best, most cost-effective alternative.
A public hearing was held in April 2012, when many of the comments received opposed the outfall. O’Mara asked the city to go back and further address wetlands disposal, which holds the wastewater in ponds and uses native vegetation to remove nitrogen and phosphorus, an approach favored by MERR.
“It’s a very positive solution to wastewater treatment,” Thurman said. She added that she hopes O’Mara’s final decision would be halted until professionals can determine whether wetlands disposal is a viable solution.
O'Mara said DNREC has investigated wetlands disposal, a solution he originally preferred. However, because of the types of soils and the region's relatively high water table, he has concluded wetlands disposal is could increase pollution of the Inland Bays. Rehoboth is under court order to stop dumping its treated wastewater in the Lewes-Rehoboth Canal by December 2014 because of its effects on the Inland Bays.
DNREC spokesman Michael Globetti said there was no timeframe or predetermined date for a decision.
“While the decision could be rendered any time after the comment period ended, those comments about the outfall are now under review,” he said.
Mayor Sam Cooper said the state is still going through comments that the city may or may not have to address. As for the environmental impact of the outfall, he said, the effluent is highly treated and at the point where the outfall pipe comes out, 6,000 feet off Deauville Beach, the dilution rate is 10,000-to-1.
He said there are concerns the outfall could result in pharmaceuticals in the ocean, but he did not think it would have an impact on fish populations. Cooper said the fish and marine animal population is much more mobile, not staying in one place at a time. He said he did have concerns about bottom-based organisms that aren’t mobile, but again stressed that the effluent is so well-treated and so diluted that it will not have much of an impact.
Still, Thurman said, “One hundred sixty-five people have voices of concern. I hope that will be something that is listened to.”