19 Md. sewer plants, industries violate U.S. Clean Water Act

EPA data from '99-'01 used in PIRG report

October 19, 2002|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

One in five of the sewer plants and industries permitted to dump hazardous chemicals into Maryland's waterways have exceeded federal limits since 1999, according to a Washington-based environmental group.

The report by Public Interest Research Group uses Environmental Protection Agency data to show that 19 sewer plants and industries in Maryland exceeded permitted limits for hazardous chemical discharges between 1999 and last year. Nationwide, the report said that four out of five plants exceeded federal limits.

The report, released this week on the 30th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, is intended to show that violations of the act are being ignored by state and federal regulators, according to the author.

"The Clean Water Act is a good piece of legislation, it's just not being enforced well," said Alison Cassady, PIRG research director and report author.

State and federal regulators say they are not ignoring the violations and that the report is based on unrealistic goals for enforcement, which would require citing a facility's operators every time they exceed limits for one regulated chemical.

"The EPA looks at a plant's performance over six months because some of these discharges can be caused by things like a rainstorm," said Steffanie Bell, an EPA spokeswoman in Washington.

To show they are not ignoring significant pollution problems, EPA officials yesterday pointed to the agreement reached in April between the EPA and Baltimore that requires the city to upgrade its aging sewage treatment system, a source of frequent sewage spills.

The report ranks Maryland 32nd among states for the number of facilities that violated federal limits for hazardous chemicals between Jan. 1, 1999, and Dec. 31.

Richard McIntire, spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment, said the ranking shows the state is aggressively monitoring and cracking down on polluters.

"If anything, this shows that Maryland gets it," McIntire said. Carol Coates, an administrator with the MDE's water management administration, said her agency has issued dozens of fines and orders over the years that require sewer plants and industries to cut back on hazardous discharges.

The industries listed in PIRG's report include Perdue Farms, Bethlehem Steel and Mettiki Coal, which won permission from the state this week to drill a shaft under the north branch of the Potomac River.

A Mettiki spokesman did not return phone calls yesterday, but officials at Perdue and Bethlehem Steel said the discharges were due to one-time changes in their manufacturing.

Bethlehem Steel's Sparrows Point plant discharged zinc when the blast furnace that produces iron was being retooled in 1999, according to a spokeswoman.

Perdue's Salisbury plant discharged phosphorus in 2000 when it began producing lecithin, an emulsifier used to make chocolate, company officials said.

But the report shows that the single largest category of offenders was small, aging municipal sewage treatment plants throughout the state.

The report lists permit violations at sewer plants in La Plata, Havre de Grace, Hagerstown, Thurmont and Salisbury, most of which discharged excessive levels of phosphorus into local waterways.

By far, the leader was Salisbury's treatment plant, which during the three-year period exceeded federal waste limits 26 times - 20 for silver, four for zinc and two for lead, according to the report.

Yesterday, a spokesman for Salisbury's Public Works Department referred questions to the city solicitor, who did not return phone calls. But an EPA spokesman said yesterday the agency reached a consent agreement in April that requires the city to pay a $40,000 penalty and complete a $217,000 overhaul of its water and wastewater facilities.

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