A Washington-based environmental group says Hagerstown's sewage treatment plant is routinely dumping raw waste into Antietam Creek, and the organization is threatening to sue unless the city corrects "chronic environmental violations."
In the past four years, the plant has dumped millions of gallons of raw sewage and partially treated wastewater into the creek, a major tributary of the Potomac River, according to the group Potomac Riverkeeper.
The four-year-old nonprofit organization, which monitors the 383-mile river and its 14,000-acre watershed, says records from 2000 to this year show that the plant repeatedly exceeded its discharge limits.
City officials failed to maintain the plant's electrical and storage systems and failed to report violations on a timely basis, Ed Merrifield, executive director of Potomac Riverkeeper, said yesterday.
"The city is in chronic violation," Merrifield said. "In the past year, they have closed Antietam Creek four times - they've had to tell people to stay away. The creek is one of the most important features of the Antietam National Battlefield. It's a disgrace."
Hagerstown officials said they had not received notice of the planned lawsuit, which Merrifield said was sent via certified mail to the city and to state and federal regulators.
"Whenever we receive some official notice of their intention, it would have to be reviewed by the city attorney," said Karen Griffin, the city's public information manager.
State environmental officials are well aware of the Hagerstown plant's problems, said Jeffrey R. Welsh, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment.
The agency is already negotiating a consent agreement with the city, spelling out repairs that must be made and penalties the city would pay for violations that occur until the plant is fixed, Welsh said.
"Like most states, Maryland has an aging infrastructure, and population growth has taxed some of these systems," Welsh said. "There might be a couple dozen in the state now that are operating under consent agreements. Hagerstown is a well-run plant that gets overwhelmed when there's heavy rain."
Merrifield said records show that 30 million to 60 million gallons of sewage flowed into the creek during a severe storm last year, releases that are common during heavy rains.
In another incident noted by the Riverkeeper group, 5.7 million gallons a day of partially treated sewage was released during one week in 2002 - a portion of the 90 million gallons of partially treated material discharged into the creek since 2000, the group says.
In August, blown fuses at the plant caused spills that prompted the Washington County Health Department to ban swimming and discourage fishing and boating along the 23-mile creek.
Potomac Riverkeeper is part of a national network of similar organizations known as the Waterkeeper Alliance. The alliance includes 11 groups in the Mid-Atlantic region, eight of which monitor rivers and other waterways in Maryland.
Under terms of the federal Clean Water Act, Hagerstown officials, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency and MDE, have 60 days to respond to the notice.
If corrective action isn't taken, Potomac Riverkeeper will go to federal court, said Rena Steinzor, a law professor and director of the University of Maryland Environmental Law Clinic, which is representing the group.
"The idea is to get violations corrected, and to give citizens opportunity to take matters into their own hands," Steinzor said. "It makes government accountable by holding their feet to the fire. This plant has had problems for years."