Centreville sewage problems probed

Worker says he was fired for revealing alleged spills

State is investigating

April 09, 2004|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

CENTREVILLE - An aging sewage treatment plant with a malfunctioning pump may have dumped more than 1 million gallons of raw sewage into a tributary of the Chester River last year, according to documents released by a town worker who says he was fired for revealing the problem.

State officials were never told of the apparent spills, an omission that has prompted a criminal investigation by the state attorney general's office, as well as a review by the Maryland Department of the Environment.

Robert Griffith, a self-described whistleblower who became the plant's primary employee in 1993, says last year's spills are part of a decade-long pattern that has sent untold pollution pouring into a small creek that feeds the Corsica River here in the Queen Anne's County seat. The Corsica runs into the Chester River, which flows into the Chesapeake Bay.

Griffith's allegations, first outlined in a Jan. 5 letter he addressed to Centreville's three-member Town Council, come as state lawmakers debate the centerpiece of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s environmental program. The proposed "flush tax" would apply a surcharge on residential water and sewer bills to pay for $1 billion in improvements to more than 60 treatment plants around the Chesapeake Bay - many of them small, outdated municipal facilities like the 45-year-old Centreville plant.

In fear for his job, Griffith says he remained silent over the years as dozens of sewage spills went unreported by his boss, town manager Terrence E. Adams, who is listed on the plant's license as its operator.

"I'm not talking a one-time event or an occasional kind of thing," said Griffith, 42. "I knew right from my first day on the job 10 or 11 years ago that this is how things operated around here. I needed a job, I have a family, and that was that."

But Adams, who oversees most of the town's 18 employees, says he was not aware until recently of the plant's chronic problems. Specifically, he said he did not realize that a malfunctioning "flapper valve" sometimes allowed sewage to pour from the plant when pumps became clogged or stopped circulating.

When Griffith alerted the Town Council in his letter in January, Adams said he contacted state environmental officials and made temporary repairs to the valve himself.

Griffith's "contention is that I knew about that valve and my contention is that I was not aware of spills," Adams said in an interview with The Sun. "When it was brought to my attention, I fixed it. I can honestly say he did not verbally tell me of any problems. There's nothing in writing either." He added, however, "As supervisor, it's my fault. It's my responsibility."

Daily reports

Griffith points to daily pump station reports for the plant that appear to show numerous spills throughout last year.

Last Christmas Day, for instance, a log shows zero gallons of sewage were pumped through one of the plant's two pumping stations - meaning, Griffith says, that the pump's average daily total of 110,000 to 120,000 gallons of sewage must have been spewed untreated into nearby Gravel Run.

Griffith's estimate of 1.1 million gallons spilled last year comes from finding such aberrations in the reports, and then adding the totals. Most of the daily logs are initialed by Griffith, who worked six days a week for his $32,000 salary.

Other entries, such as the one Christmas Day, are initialed by Adams, who usually checked the plant on Sundays or holidays. "For [Adams] to deny he knew what was going on is just absurd," Griffith said.

Contacting the state

Michael Whitehill, the Town Council president, says local officials contacted the state two days after receiving Griffith's letter. "After that letter, we knew there were issues," he said. "I have no way to estimate what [the overflows] might have been or over what period of time. I would not doubt that there have been overflows."

Eileen McLellan, who works as the Chester River Association's "riverkeeper," is deeply concerned about Griffith's allegations, particularly in light of frequent algae blooms and red tide that have troubled the Corsica in recent summers.

"It's frightening to think that a small plant could be responsible for spills of that magnitude," McLellan said. "These are very serious allegations."

Investigations launched

An investigator with the Environmental Crimes Unit of the state attorney general's office has interviewed Griffith, Adams and others familiar with the operation of the Centreville plant. A spokesman for the attorney general's office would not provide details of the probe.

Richard McIntire, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment, which licenses the state's treatment plants, says the agency has been alerted to Griffith's allegations. "We are looking into it," he said.

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