Efforts to rid the bay of harmful nutrients paying off

November 18, 2003|By Kendl P. Philbrick

THE CHESAPEAKE Bay Foundation recently reported on wastewater treatment plants as a source of nitrogen pollution, providing a snapshot of nitrogen flow into the bay from those facilities.

Missing from its assessment, however, was a recognition of the efforts by state and local governments over the last two decades to implement biological nutrient removal (BNR) at major wastewater treatment plants in Maryland that discharge into the bay.

The state has committed over $190 million to the implementation of BNR, matched by an even greater amount of funding by local governments. This cooperative effort has already achieved point-source reductions of 52 percent in nitrogen and 62 percent in phosphorus from levels discharged in 1985, the base year for the Chesapeake Bay nutrient reduction agreement, even as the region's population was growing.

Of the 66 major wastewater treatment plants in the state, 42 have already achieved BNR standards. Five are under construction. Eleven are in the design phase, eight are in pre-engineering, and the two federal facilities are also committed to achieving BNR standards.

In other words, every major plant in Maryland meets BNR standards or soon will meet them.

In addition, Maryland has included specific goals for reducing the amount of nutrients that flow into the bay as well as operational obligations in the permits for the facilities that have entered into cost share agreements with the state to implement biological nutrient removal.

The state Department of the Environment has worked with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the affected local governments to develop permit language about specific nutrient reduction goals for the permitted facility and commits facilities to "operate the BNR process on a year-round basis and undertake best efforts to meet the nitrogen cap goal."

These permits also contain a "reopener clause" that allows the goals to be modified once individual treatment plant allocations required to meet the 2000 Chesapeake Bay Agreement commitments are determined.

There is no question that we must do more to reduce nutrient pollution entering the bay from all sources if we are going to meet our water quality goals for the bay.

In April, as part of the state's ongoing efforts to meet its commitments under the bay agreement, Maryland agreed to aggressive new nutrient-reduction goals for the bay that will challenge the limits of our ability to reduce nutrients from all sources, including wastewater treatment plants, industry, urban residential areas, agriculture and atmospheric deposition.

The state is working aggressively with local governments to take the next step by moving to state-of-the-art enhanced nutrient removal (ENR) at wastewater treatment plants, which will cut the flow of nutrients even more - to less than half the amount under BNR. Critical to adopting enhanced nutrient removal technologies at all 66 major wastewater treatment plants, which provide about 95 percent of all municipal wastewater generated in Maryland, is identifying significant new sources of funding from federal, state and local sources.

To meet the goals of the agreement, we need to achieve implementation of ENR at major wastewater treatment plants as quickly as possible. In Maryland alone, we estimate that it will require up to $1 billion to upgrade the major facilities to ENR levels. At the same time, Maryland's local governments are facing an additional estimated cost of $2.8 billion to repair aging sewerage infrastructure and eliminate sewage overflows.

Given the high cost of sewerage infrastructure repairs and wastewater treatment plant upgrades, it is imperative that state and federal governments find funding to assist local governments. This is a major challenge, one that will require the combined efforts of all of our partners in the bay restoration effort.

I believe that we can be successful in bringing the nation's and the region's combined resources to bear on implementation of state-of-the-art nutrient control technology at the bay's largest wastewater treatment facilities.

The administration of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has made this a priority. But we must succeed in getting the financial resources this work will require, and that requires cooperation and collaboration by everyone who is working to restore the bay.

Kendl P. Philbrick is acting secretary of the Maryland Department of the Environment.

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