As Rehoboth Beach awaits state approval of its wastewater disposal plan, criticism grows over the controversial proposed pipeline into the ocean

By Lynn R. Parks  |  Photograph by Scott Nathan
From the October 2014 issue

oceanoutfallOct2014 Outcry Over the Outfall - Delaware Beach LifeIt has been nearly two years since the completion of an environmental impact statement on the best way for the City of Rehoboth Beach to dispose of its treated wastewater.

The city has waited all that time for an OK from the state to proceed with the statement’s recommendation — that the effluent be piped a mile offshore and released into the Atlantic Ocean.

As it has waited — and as treated wastewater has continued to flow into the impaired inland bays watershed at the rate of more than 2 million gallons per day during the summer months — opposition to the outfall recommendation has increased.

“We all know that putting that waste into the inland bays is pollution,” says John Doerfler, vice chairman of the Delaware chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, an international group dedicated to the protection of ocean beaches. “So if it’s pollution in the inland bays, why isn’t it pollution when you put it in the ocean? No matter what, you’re still polluting the waterways.”

The local Surfrider chapter is “very much against” the outfall. But it isn’t arguing that the current situation — in which treated wastewater is pumped into the Lewes-and-Rehoboth Canal, where it makes its way into the Rehoboth Bay a few hundred yards away — should continue. Rather, it says that spraying the waste on farmland, an option that was rejected by the environmental impact statement as being too expensive, should be given a closer look.

“I don’t understand why we would use a 19th-century way of disposing of waste in the 21st century,” Doerfler says. “Spray irrigation is a good option for the environment.”

The Surfrider Foundation isn’t alone in raising concerns about the ocean outfall. Delaware chapters of both the Sierra Club and the National Audubon Society have publicly questioned the wisdom of pumping the wastewater into the Atlantic.

In a February 2013 letter to the state, the local chapter of the former criticized the environmental impact statement — prepared for the city by the engineering firm GHD, an international firm with an office in Bowie, Md. — as having “numerous shortcomings, rendering it inadequate to understand the environmental impacts of the project.”

“[We] found many flaws in what should have been a scientific document,” says the chapter’s conservation chairwoman, Amy Roe, who has a doctorate from the University of Delaware in energy and environmental policy. It “was fraught with conjecture, was misleading and lacked scientific rigor.”

The chapter asked that the statement be revised to include a “comprehensive assessment of accurate and relevant scientific information.”

“We have not yet received a response to our letter,” Roe says.

And in March, Audubon representatives attended a press conference at the Rehoboth Beach bandstand to praise Surfrider for speaking out against the ocean disposal.

“We have issues with the ocean outfall in terms of water quality,” says David Carter, conservation chairman for the Delaware Audubon Society. “We know that they have to get the waste out of the bays. But it’s not worth risking the water quality elsewhere to fix the inland bays.”

Chris Bason is executive director of the Center for the Inland Bays, whose mission is to promote the wise use and enhancement of Delaware’s three inland bays, including Rehoboth Bay. While the CIB board has not taken a position on where Rehoboth Beach should deposit its waste, other than that it shouldn’t be in the bay watershed, Bason says that the ocean outfall is a perfectly legitimate alternative. And he accuses other groups of putting out false information that confuses the issue. In May, the center published an ocean outfall fact sheet “so people can get good information and make a good decision,” Bason notes.

His main concern, of course, is Rehoboth Bay, a waterway that he calls “blistered.”

“It’s unbelievable how bad a shape it’s in,” Bason adds. “Up there where the canal comes in, it’s just a shadow of itself, covered with algae and with absolutely no bay grass growing. “I know that this is a tough decision,” he allows. “But the state needs to make it. We need to clean up the bay. We need to do the right thing.”

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