A decade-long government campaign to upgrade sewage facilities in the Chesapeake Bay region has yet to reach the lower Eastern Shore, where nutrient pollution has been linked with outbreaks of a toxic microbe blamed for killing thousands of fish and sickening people.
Wastewater treatment plants in the Pocomoke and Manokin river watersheds, parts of which have been closed to fishing and swimming, have not installed nutrient removal systems, even though 64 sewage facilities in Maryland are targeted for such overhauls.
Now, with concern about nutrient pollution at an all-time high because of its suspected link to outbreaks of Pfiesteria piscicida, state and federal officials are scrambling to correct that oversight, and to crack down on other possible sources.
Runoff of chicken manure dwarfs sewage plants and industry as a source of nutrients in the Pocomoke and Manokin watersheds, where dead fish and fish with lesions have turned up in recent weeks. Officials estimate that 80 percent to 90 percent of the nitrogen and phosphorus getting into those two rivers comes from farmland where manure is spread as fertilizer.
While scientists have yet to prove that Pfiesteria is stimulated by nutrient-enriched water, officials say that the evidence of a connection is strong enough to warrant redoubling efforts already under way to curb the amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus getting into Chesapeake Bay.
Nutrient over-enrichment has long been identified as a major cause of the bay's decline. Nitrogen and phosphorus from sewage, runoff and air pollution stimulate growth of algae, which can rob the water of oxygen needed by fish. Ten years ago, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia pledged to reduce nutrients getting into the bay 40 percent by the year 2000. But officials acknowledge that they will not make the goal in time.
"We're fighting a very, very difficult battle," Melanie Davenport, an aide to the Chesapeake Bay Commission, said Thursday in Baltimore, while briefing the panel's members. But it has become even more important in light of the Pfiesteria outbreaks, she added.
"We need to look at every cause of the problem, and not just the biggest," said Thomas Grasso, Maryland director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
The Annapolis-based environmental group has called on the state to correct pollution violations at the Pocomoke's wastewater plants and businesses, as well as to tighten regulation of poultry farms in the watershed.
Four plants on river
Two of four municipal plants -- at Snow Hill and Willards -- have been pumping poorly treated sewage into the Pocomoke River at times in the past 15 months, according to Maryland Department of the Environment records. Two businesses -- a truck terminal and a motel -- have been cited by the state for excessive levels of bacteria and chlorine in the waste they discharge.
State officials say they are pressing the polluting facilities to clean up.
The four sewage plants on the Pocomoke are pumping well over 100,000 pounds of nutrients into the river annually, according to MDE records.
The treated wastewater runs green at times as it flows into the river from the largest of the four. The greenish tinge in the discharge is from thick mats of nutrient-loving algae growing on the surface of the 86 acres of lagoons that Pocomoke City uses to treat sewage from its 4,000 residents.
Maryland Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes lined up $2 million in federal grants last month to help upgrade the two largest plants on the river, at Pocomoke and Snow Hill.
"We're trying to fast-track those two projects," said Dane Bauer, deputy water management director for the Department of the Environment.
As part of its bay cleanup effort, the state has a revolving loan fund that helps communities finance the installation of biological nutrient removal systems in sewage treatment plants.
But Pocomoke City officials had been reluctant to pay half of the $2.2 million estimated cost for their plant. City Manager Russell Blake explained that the city had just borrowed to overhaul its water-supply system.
"We wanted to look into the financing further before committing to an agreement," Blake said. However, with the Environmental Protection Agency now likely to cover the city's share, the city manager said local officials should be willing to proceed.
When upgraded, the plant should remove 55 percent of the nitrogen and 33 percent of the phosphorus in the 1.2 million gallons of treated wastewater it pumps daily into the river.
Pocomoke City and Snow Hill
State officials say the Pocomoke City plant has not had any operational problems. But MDE records show that state inspectors discovered raw sewage leaking from a storm drain into a ditch that leads to the river in June. They also found an overflow from a manhole in another location.
The city has since repaired a broken concrete sewer pipe that was the apparent source of one leak. But the city manager said he was unaware of the reported overflow.