CENTREVILLE -- State environmental officials said yesterday that the breakneck pace of development that overwhelmed an aging sewage plant in this Eastern Shore town has already pushed the new $9 million plant beyond its recommended capacity -- even before it has opened.
Kendl P. Philbrick, Maryland's environment secretary, said the state is considering ordering an indefinite moratorium on new building permits here. Such an extremely rare move would be aimed at keeping the new 500,000-gallon plant at or near limits set by state regulators.
"We have the authority, the capability, to order a moratorium on building permits," Philbrick said. "We're still looking through the town's files and documents. I think we have a lot of fence-mending and confidence-building to do here in Centreville."
State officials say the new plant, like other modern facilities, is built to handle more than its legal capacity, but the town could be forced to take costly measures to reduce the flow in the system.
"We might require them to find ways to limit the amount of ground water getting into the system, for instance," said Jeffrey R. Welsh, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment. "In all likelihood, it could operate above its nominal capacity without exceeding legal limits for pollutants."
Philbrick was grilled yesterday by angry residents who say they've complained for years about pollution in the nearby Corsica River. He rejected their demands that the state ask for assistance or oversight by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Officials in the EPA's Philadelphia district office have been informed, Philbrick said, about the MDE's probe of Centreville's sewage problems and a parallel investigation that was begun in January by the state attorney general's Environmental Crimes Unit.
"My concern, without pointing fingers, is that with the lack of trust that's developed, EPA involvement would be worthwhile," said Frank DiGialleonardo, a resident who attended the meeting organized by Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest. "How could you, as the enforcers of environmental law, allow a town like Centreville to add hundreds of houses?"
Investigators are looking into allegations by former plant operator Robert Griffith that the 45-year-old treatment plant spilled more than 1 million gallons of raw sewage last year and millions more over the last decade as town officials ignored the problem.
Griffith says he was fired for airing the charges. As the dispute began to draw headlines, Griffith's boss, Town Manager Terrence E. Adams, was fired, and Town Attorney Jonathan Hodgson was let go when his contract expired.
"This is going to take more than assurances from the Maryland Department of the Environment," said Sveinn Storm, a frequent critic of the three-member Town Council. "We looked through the town's files and within an hour, we had enough to go to the press. At any time, MDE could have gotten over 100 documents."
Storm and other critics say a building boom that sent the town's population soaring from about 1,900 to 2,600 or more in four years exacerbated conditions and poor operations at the plant.
Investigators from MDE said town records show that the old treatment facility, which was built in 1959 to empty treated sewage into tributaries of the Chester River, frequently surpassed its 375,000-gallon capacity last year and has averaged 385,000 gallons a day so far this year.
The new plant, which was scheduled for completion more than two years ago, is designed to handle up to an average of 500,000 gallons per day. But with current users and those set for connection to the sewage system, the plant would be 28,000 gallons above its rating if it opened today.
"In this case in Centreville, the new plant was designed to take care of their growth," said Robert M. Summers, who heads MDE's water management administration. "Obviously, building permits got out ahead. It's over capacity."
The state has not enforced a moratorium in about 20 years, when such a ban was imposed on the Patapsco River Plant in Baltimore, said Welsh. A handful of small towns have limits on the number of new users than can be added to their systems, he said.
State officials say the town is unlikely to get any of an estimated $1 billion generated by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s "flush tax" approved by the General Assembly this year. Money generated from the fee on residential water and sewer bills will go first to the 60 largest treatment plants around the Chesapeake Bay, Philbrick said.
The Town Council imposed a 30-day moratorium on new building permits April 12. The panel said the ban could be extended in 30-day intervals. In the meantime, the council is trying to develop a policy for allocating sewer hook-ups, a key for planning development.
"In some cases, this was done on a handshake or simply verbally, with a conversation with the town manager," said Councilwoman Mary McCarthy, who won her council seat in the April 5 town election. "It's obvious, we have to do better than that."