Partner Update: Proposed community septic system threatens “exceptional value” stream in Hamiltonban: Dissolved nitrates could more than double

We are pleased to share this partner story written by the Watershed Alliance of Adams County. Please reach out to with questions!

In Pennsylvania, certain very clean, very healthy streams earn a special “Exceptional Value” designation from the state’s Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP). These are the most unspoiled waters in the Commonwealth, and they merit special protection from the PADEP.

Out of 59 named streams in Adams County, only three streams or stream segments have received this special designation: Carbaugh Run, a short section of Middle Creek, and Swamp Creek, which is located in Hamiltonban Township just west of Fairfield. This out of 59 named streams in Adams County.

But while a lot needs to go right for a stream to achieve Exceptional Value (EV) status, only a little has to go wrong to degrade an EV stream through overuse or pollution.

The Watershed Alliance of Adams County fears that Swamp Creek faces just this degradation, if a corporation that has purchased land along the creek succeeds in constructing a non-standard sewage-disposal system just steps from its banks that could more than double toxic nitrate levels in the stream.

Petrus Holdings, Inc., has purchased 16 acres in Hamiltonban Twp. and is currently petitioning the township and the PADEP to build residences for 20 people on land just 150 yards above Swamp Creek.

The land in question is mountainous, with soils rated as “marginal”—in other words, the land does not “perc” and as such is unsuitable for a standard septic system. Because of this, Petrus Holdings is seeking to build a non-standard septic system to manage the community’s raw sewage.

In April, Soil Services, Inc., submitted a sewage-facilities planning module to Hamiltonban Township’s Planning Commission on behalf of Petrus Holdings. The planning document estimates that the sewage flow from this community would be 2,000 gallons per day and proposes to dispose of the community’s sewage via an “on-lot shallow limiting zone drip micro-mound.”

The Watershed Alliance believes that this non-standard sewage system will be inadequate to prevent toxins from migrating into Swamp Creek.

So does Charles B. Andrews, Ph.D., senior principal at the environmental and water-resource consulting firm S.S. Papadopulos & Assoc., Inc., who has issued a report stating that Petrus Holdings’ proposed system will release approximately 250 pounds of “nitrogenous waste” annually into Swamp Creek.

“This estimate is very concerning,” said Watershed Alliance president Patrick Naugle. “It’s also likely an underestimate, because it only looks at the human waste coming from this community. It doesn’t take into account other contaminants, such as household chemicals, cleaning agents, pharmaceuticals, herbicides, pesticides, and other destructive substances that inevitably will make their way from an inadequate septic system into Swamp Creek, and from there to the Chesapeake Bay. Along the way, these chemicals will wreak havoc on the fragile ecosystem of Swamp Creek.”

The Watershed Alliance of Adams County, a private non-profit that works to protect and enhance the county’s water resources, is petitioning the PADEP to act to protect the Exceptional Value Swamp Creek.

“We’re concerned about any sewage system being built in ‘marginal conditions,’ but especially one being built on the banks of a pristine Exceptional Value stream,” said Naugle.

“My major concern regarding the proposed micro-mound system is the potential impact on the water quality and aquatic biota of the adjacent Swamp Creek,” notes Andrews in his report, adding that the septic system proposed by Petrus Holdings, Inc. will be inadequate to prevent the community’s raw sewage from entering Swamp Creek.

“The characteristics of the hydrologic system near the proposed micro-mound are such that all of the sewage effluent applied to the micro-mounds will eventually discharge to Swamp Creek,” the report states. “Thus, the 2,000 gallons per day of effluent applied to the micro-mounds will result in 2,000 gallons per day of additional discharge to Swamp Creek.”

Andrews adds, “The use of the micro-mound system will increase the nutrient loading to Swamp Creek. Based on the standard assumption of 45 mg/L of nitrogen in sewage effluent, and limited degradation within the system, the use of the micro-mounds will result in the addition of over 250 pounds per year of nitrogen to Swamp Creek, increasing nitrogen concentrations in the creek, particularly in the sensitive low-flow periods. In addition to nitrogen, many other constituents in foods, medications, and cleaning products used in residential and worship settings will be disposed into the sewage system and applied as effluent to the micro-mounds. Constituents that do not degrade or only partially degrade in systems of this type include a variety of food additives, pharmaceuticals, organic solvents, and inorganic compounds. These constituents will all discharge to Swamp Creek. Many of these compounds have the potential to affect the biota in Swamp Creek.”

Andrews concludes, “The use of a micro-mound system for sewage effluent disposal will, in my opinion, result in degradation of Swamp Creek.”

As a point of comparison, the Watershed Alliance regularly measures nitrate levels in Swamp Creek at around 1.6 mg/L. According to Andrews’ report, nitrate levels in the Exceptional Value Swamp Creek could rise to 3.8 mg/L—an increase of 138%—and well over the recommended upper limit of 2.0 mg/L.

Andrews’ complete report can be found online at