Sewage plants blamed for pollution Chesapeake Bay Foundation takes exception to state's rosy view.

October 17, 1991|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Evening Sun Staff

Municipal sewage treatment plants in Maryland and neighboring states continue to pollute Chesapeake Bay more than they should, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation charged today.

In a report reviewing the performance of 160 large sewage plants in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia, the environmental group based in Annapolis says that many plants are routinely exceeding state-imposed limits on how much pollution they may discharge. In addition, the foundation contends that those limits often are not nearly as stringent as they should be.

Maryland Department of the Environment officials dispute the group's criticisms, saying they are based on outdated information from 1989.

"We feel there's been a lot of progress in the last two years, and we don't think it's fair to just ignore that," said Jeffrey Rein, the department's community sewerage director.

Foundation officials insist that the report is fair, noting that 1989 was the most recent year for which data were available when their study began.

Many sewage plants do not have to meet limits on discharges of nitrogen or phosphorus, the report says,even though it is widely recognized that such nutrients are chiefly responsible for the bay's water-quality woes.

The report also faults the states for not moving quickly enough to curb toxic pollutants being discharged from sewage plants.

"Treatment plant permits in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania often lack adequate controls on nutrients and toxic pollutants," said Ann Powers, the foundation's vice president and general counsel, in a statement released with the report.

"As a result, even if plants were in compliance with their permits, bay waters would still be in danger."

In 1989, 36 percent of the largest municipal sewage plants in the bay region violated their pollution limits for at least four months, the report says. In Maryland, 27 of 47 major plants exceeded their limits four months or longer during that year, including Baltimore's Back River and Patapsco plants.

The report calls these "dismal compliance rates" that belie "rosy" claims made by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the states that sewage plant compliance was good and getting better.

Maryland officials, for instance, had declared that 90 percent of the state's major sewage treatment plants were in compliance by the end of 1989.

But such claims mislead the public, the report says, because they focus only on plants found in "significant non-compliance" under narrow technical criteria set by EPA. A plant could exceed its pollution limits by nearly one-third half the time and still not be considered in significant non-compliance.

"The public would be better served by a more honest accounting of compliance rates -- one that addresses all violations," the report says.

EPA and state officials had pledged to improve sewage plant compliance after an EPA inspector general's report in 1989 accused state and federal governments in the bay region of lax enforcement.

The bay foundation's report calls for more aggressive enforcement of permit violations and for imposing stricter pollution limits.

But Maryland officials say they already have taken enforcement action against many of the problem plants listed in the foundation's report, and last year 70 percent of the state's largest facilities met their pollution limits consistently throughout the year.

Only two large sewage plants are failing to meet their discharge permit limits now, state officials say. One is Back River, which just received a $40 million federal grant to upgrade its treatment systems to remove nitrogen. The other is Piscataway in Prince George's County.

Rein contends that many of the violations cited by the foundation, such as high fecal coliform levels, did not pose serious environmental threats to streams or the bay.

Maryland leads other bay states in imposing nutrient limits on its largest sewage plants, the environmental group's report says. Maryland is alone in requiring nitrogen removal, the report says, and it requires phosphorus removal at more plants than its neighbors.

Even so, only 53 percent of the state's plants had phosphorus limits in 1989, the report notes. And while Maryland is ahead in curbing nutrients, the state lags in addressing toxic pollution.

The state has adopted water-quality standards for 28 toxic pollutants, but has yet to write toxic limits into sewage plant permits. Several industries and utilities have challenged the standards in court.

The state is nevertheless requiring plants to test for toxic pollutionand is requiring improvements where contaminants that may kill fish are found. But unlike neighboring states, Maryland is not requiring dischargers to eliminate "chronic" pollution, which may hinder fish growth and reproduction while not killing them outright.

Maryland officials say that phosphorus removal is being required at 24 plants now, which account for more than 80 percent of the 395 million gallons of wastewater discharged daily by the state's largest treatment facilities.

And they contend that they have taken steps to deal with toxic pollutants. Five sewage plants, including the city's Patapsco facility, are evaluating how to eliminate toxic pollutants that may kill fish, said Rein.

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