Pennsylvania lags in efforts to clean bay

Contamination from Susquehanna is on the increase

Nitrogen goals at risk

Lack of funds to fix, rebuild sewer plants blamed in situation

September 02, 2001|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

SELINSGROVE, Pa. - Pennsylvania, once a leader in the nation's sewage-treatment efforts, now lags behind its partners in the regional compact to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

Although Maryland and Virginia have sharply reduced the amount of nitrogen discharged from their sewer plants, the nitrogen that spills into the Susquehanna River from Pennsylvania plants is increasing. And scientists say if nothing is done it's going to get worse, undermining the 17-year, $8.5 billion regional effort to restore the bay's health.

The Susquehanna will become the bay's largest single source of nitrogen pollution from sewage plants by 2010 - more than the rivers of Maryland's Western Shore combined - if Pennsylvania doesn't start spending more on plant improvements, says Allison Wiedeman, who monitors wastewater treatment for the Environmental Protection Agency's Chesapeake Bay Program.

The river, which stretches 444 miles from Otsego Lake near Cooperstown, N.Y., to Havre de Grace, provides half of all fresh water in the bay. It passes through some of the fastest-growing sections of Pennsylvania, and with discharges from the 143 sewer plants on its banks and tributaries - more than half the total in the bay watershed - it is a significant source of nitrogen pollution.

Sewage plant discharges account for nearly one-fifth of the 300 million pounds of nitrogen that pour into the bay annually. The rest comes from farm fields, animal feed lots, lawns and air pollution that settles on the water.

Nitrogen leads to the formation of algae, which rob the water of oxygen and block sunlight from bay grasses that provide food and shelter for crabs and fish.

The increased load from Pennsylvania could put at risk efforts to reach nutrient-reduction goals outlined in Chesapeake 2000, the bay cleanup agreement signed last summer by the three states, the District of Columbia and the Environmental Protection Agency.

"I wouldn't go so far as to say it would break the agreement, but the folks in Pennsylvania have to recognize what the numbers are saying," says Michael Hirschfield, vice president of resource protection at the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

In the past five years, Maryland has spent $200 million to improve sewage plants that discharge into bay tributaries. Virginia has spent $75 million, and Pennsylvania has spent "in the single-digit millions," Wiedeman says.

The state doesn't have "a big endowment" for sewage plant upgrades, says John Murtha, chief of operations and compliance in the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection's wastewater management division. "We use an opportunistic approach."

Rather than rebuild sewage plants, Pennsylvania officials say, they tweak existing plants to improve them.

"There are lots of experimental things going on," Murtha says. "We can make small adjustments and make improvements. It's more cost-effective and less disruptive."

The state takes a "watershed-wide approach" with its five-year, $650 million Growing Greener initiative, which distributes money for stream bank buffers and farmland conservation projects as well as sewage plant improvements, says DEP spokeswoman April Hutcheson.

"It's more than just one aspect of reducing the load from sewage treatment plants, but also from [other] sources," she says. "It's a more comprehensive approach."

Because most of the nitrogen that gets into the Susquehanna in Pennsylvania comes from farm fields, the state has put its emphasis on agricultural programs, says state Rep. Russell H. Fairchild, who represents Pennsylvania on the Chesapeake Bay Commission.

Pennsylvania was among the first states in the nation to require certain farmers to have nutrient-management plans to reduce the amount of runoff containing nitrogen from farm fields. It also was among the first to use novel methods for treating sewage, including spray irrigation and man-made wetlands.

But Pennsylvania has not spent a lot on the kinds of treatment plant improvements that bay scientists say are necessary. Specifically, the state has overhauled only a few sewage treatment plants to use biological nutrient removal, in which bacteria consume the nitrogen in waste water.

Given that neither of Pennsylvania's political power centers - Philadelphia and Pittsburgh - are in the bay watershed, "it's amazing they've done what they've done," Hirschfield says. "But in the next decade, they have to step up to the plate in wastewater treatment."

Pennsylvania's dominant form of local government, the township, works against its sewage treatment plant efforts, Fairchild says.

"What frustrates me is in Pennsylvania we have 2,500 municipalities. Each one is a local entity, and they have their own sewer plants. It becomes a burden in terms of planning and resources."

State leaders have considered creating a dedicated fund for water and sewer improvements but haven't done so, he says.

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