Md. defends waste-plant scrutiny

State to boost inspections, environment chief says

EPA finds tactics adequate

August 10, 2004|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

State environmental officials said yesterday that they will improve their scrutiny of sewage treatment plants in fast-growing areas to help prevent overflows like the escape of millions of gallons of raw waste from an overburdened plant on the Eastern Shore.

Kendl P. Philbrick, the state environment secretary, said his department shouldn't be faulted for failing to detect the problems at the Centreville Waste Water Treatment Plant, which for years released untreated sewage into a tributary of the Chester River.

The Maryland Department of the Environment's routine for inspecting that plant and others is adequate, according to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency evaluation of the state's monitoring program released yesterday.

The state is conducting a criminal investigation into whether the Centreville plant filed false reports with MDE in an attempt to hide the illegal discharges, Philbrick said. He called the problem an "anomaly" that could not have been prevented by the state.

But Philbrick said his agency is nonetheless bolstering its inspection program to make sure that development in other booming towns and counties doesn't outstrip the capacity of local waste treatment plants.

"The MDE will be conducting more intensive inspections of wastewater treatment plants throughout the state," Philbrick said at a news conference. "We will be conducting unannounced inspections ... and will focus on plants in high-growth areas, or on plants that have had compliance problems in the past."

The more than 300 sewage treatment plants in Maryland have long been subjected to surprise inspections by the MDE, every year for the largest 66 plants and every other year for smaller plants, state officials said.

But in the past, the agency's main focus was on examining the quality of the water flowing out of the plants.

MDE will continue to look at this, but now it will also dedicate two staff members to reviewing the number of new homes and businesses being hooked up to sewerage systems to make sure the new connections don't overburden the plants, Philbrick said.

And the agency will take a closer look at the volume of water being treated at the plants, which is often an indicator of how rapidly a county is growing.

Working with the state Department of Planning, the MDE will try to provide communities with better advice on how to plan for growth, Philbrick said.

"There often seems to be a disconnect between the growth plans of a particular municipality - be it a county, a city or a town - and the capacity of both old and new plants to handle their growth," said Philbrick. "We're trying to get out ahead of this issue."

Beth McGee, a senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, praised the idea of providing more oversight to sewage plants in fast-growing areas. But she said she wonders whether MDE has enough employees to provide effective oversight.

"We recognize that the MDE is underfunded and understaffed," McGee said.

An EPA report released yesterday said that a federal inspector watched two state employees conduct routine examinations June 7 through June 10 at the Centreville plant, the Queenstown Waste Water Treatment Plant and the Little Patuxent Water Reclamation Plant in Howard County.

The EPA concluded that the state's inspections were carried out "very carefully and thoughtfully," according to the report.

The state inspectors also found problems in the plants that they told the operators to fix, said Jeffrey R. Welsh, spokesman for the MDE. For example, the Centreville plant needs to install a backup power supply system for its pumps, and it needs to more frequently clean filters that catch large debris, Welsh said.

After news accounts in the spring revealed that the overburdened Centreville plant was spilling large amounts of raw sewage into the Corsica River, the Centreville Town Council fired the town manager and town attorney and brought in new management for the plant.

The state imposed a moratorium on home construction until a new $9 million sewage treatment plant is finished. That moratorium still stands but will be re-evaluated after the expected completion of the plant in September, said Philbrick.

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