Better treatment for sewage plants Pollution: Pfiesteria outbreak highlights need to remove nutrients from sewage better.

September 17, 1997

SCIENTISTS say inadequately treated sewage from municipal plants along the lower Pocomoke River is not the major contributor to pollution of that tributary, now closed because of a virulent microbe that kills fish and affects human health.

But these specific point-sources of polluting nutrients -- nitrogen and phosphorus -- are identified and most easily corrected. Indeed, their marginal contribution of pollutants to the river may be enough to tip the health of that degraded waterway, even if polluted runoff from farms is blamed for 80 percent of the load.

Four sewage treatment plants along the Pocomoke lack the nutrient-removal systems that dozens of other Maryland wastewater plants have installed or are currently installing. They are pumping an estimated 100,000 pounds of nutrients into the Pocomoke each year, state records show.

This continuing problem flies in the face of the decade-old commitment of the multistate Chesapeake Bay Commission to reduce nutrient pollution of the estuary by 40 percent by the year 2000, and the creation of state revolving loan funds, supplemented by federal grants, to help pay for needed sewage plant improvements.

Yet none of the four Pocomoke River treatment plants is in violation of pollution discharge rules. Snow Hill's plant was fined by the state for violations, but is now operating legally without biological nutrient reduction equipment, under a state consent order. The small plant at Willards has been cited for periodic violations, but is not under a state upgrade order.

One problem in upgrading these plants is a lack of money in these small communities. While federal and state sources may pay much of the cost, localities still must come up with their share. That amounts to more than $1 million for Pocomoke City's sewage plant improvements, a price that town officials are reluctant to pay. As with many small water systems, the priority is to improve drinking water quality, not to pay for better sewage treatment.

To address the treatment-system needs at Snow Hill and Pocomoke City, the two largest on the tributary, the federal government will contribute $2 million.

Meanwhile, three sections of Maryland rivers have been closed because of toxic Pfiesteria flare-ups, and Virginia has found a similar condition in the Rappahannock. Pollution is the likely trigger for the microbe outbreak, even as scientists search for the smoking gun.

Pub Date: 9/17/97

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