Pact limits pollution in bay, allows growth

Plan is to permit more effluent, but with less nitrogen

October 10, 2001|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

In what could become a model for Maryland, state, Howard County, and Chesapeake Bay Foundation officials have agreed in principle on terms for limiting future nitrogen pollution from wastewater released from an expanded Patuxent River sewage treatment plant.

The agreement could set a standard for treatment plants on rivers that ring the bay and, at the local level, will allow increased Patuxent wastewater flows to accommodate Howard growth.

Nitrogen is widely viewed as the most dangerous pollutant in the bay -- removing oxygen vital for bay grasses, shellfish and other creatures. The argument over how to limit it in the face of continuing development has been one of the most challenging environmental problems facing the state.

The proposed limit on future nitrogen discharges from the Little Patuxent Water Reclamation Plant in Savage would be a goal, not a term of the state operating permit, officials said, but Chesapeake Bay Foundation leaders called it a major step forward until firm legal discharge limits are set up by the state.

"It could be a model for any plant looking to increase or expand. The impact of wastewater treatment plants is right up there at the top of factors that affect the bay. It's very important," said Theresa Pierno, executive director of the foundation.

"If it can be used as a template, there are a lot of other plants that discharge to impaired water bodies," said J. James Dieter, program administrator of the Maryland Department of the Environment.

Although a few details remain to be worked out, Howard County agreed not to discharge more than 400,000 pounds of nitrogen per year into the Little Patuxent River. In addition, the county agreed to undertake projects to cut nitrogen pollution in other ways, such as creating natural buffers along river and stream banks in the county.

In two years, when legal limits for nitrogen discharges are expected to be set, the agreement will be revisited, Pierno said.

"Obviously, there's quite a bit of compromise all the way around," Pierno said.

Limiting nitrogen is particularly important in light of the state's Smart Growth program, which encourages development in areas equipped with infrastructure like public water and sewerage.

"We obviously don't want to shut the door on growth," Pierno said.

So as fast-growing Howard County continues to develop -- with two developments totaling over 2,300 homes and 3 million square feet of commercial space planned for the southeastern area of the county -- expansion of the treatment facility and limiting nitrogen are both vital.

The key idea for Howard County, according to public works director James M. Irvin, is that "as the [sewage] flows go up , the [nitrogen] concentration would go down." Howard discharges nearly 380,000 pounds of nitrogen a year, but Irvin said he believes the county has five to 10 years to find new ways to remove the substance before sewage flows reach the new limit.

Work has been under way for months to expand the Savage plant's capacity from 18 million to 25 million gallons per day by early 2003. But the state had withheld an operating permit until the nitrogen discharge issue could be solved.

The plant now discharges an average of 17.2 million gallons per day, containing an average of about seven milligrams of nitrogen per liter. Environmentalists feared that even if that proportion of nitrogen were reduced, the increase in volume would increase total nitrogen pollution in the bay.

Without permission to operate at higher capacity, county officials said they would be forced to divert more Howard sewage to Baltimore's Patapsco wastewater treatment plant, which doesn't treat for nitrogen at all.

The total amount of nitrogen going into the bay has dropped from 360 million pounds in 1985 to about 310 million pounds last year. But that still dwarfs the 50 million pounds that entered the bay each year in the 17th century, according to estimates by the Environmental Protection Agency's Chesapeake Bay Program.

To help the bay recover, the nitrogen flow must be reduced to no more than 190 million pounds a year, the EPA estimates. With 3 million more people expected to settle in the watershed by 2020, the challenge is obvious.

"We'll be watching this plant very closely," Pierno said, and if the nitrogen amounts are exceeded, "we're going to be pushing very hard" for changes."

Howard County Council Chairman Guy J. Guzzone, a Democrat who represents the area and a former director of Maryland's Sierra Club, praised the agreement.

Noting that an environmental lawsuit aimed at limiting nitrogen discharges failed, Guzzone said: "To still be able to strike agreements on a county-by-county or a river-by-river basis is ultimately the way it should be done."

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