Waste spills fuel `flush tax' debate

Military bases the source of major sewage overflows

U.S. won't pay bay-cleanup fee

April 10, 2005|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Three military bases in Maryland have together spilled nearly 20 million gallons of sewage into Chesapeake Bay tributaries over the past decade, raising further questions about the military's refusal to pay the state's "flush tax," aimed at cleaning up the bay.

An often overwhelmed World War II-era waste treatment plant at the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County has flushed 5.4 million gallons of partly treated sewage into the Bush River over the past two years, according to state records.

The Naval Surface Warfare Center in Charles County has received two federal violation notices in the past six years, one for washing coal ash from a power plant into the Potomac River and another for spilling more than 14 million gallons of sewage, records show.

And Fort Meade in Anne Arundel County has spilled more than 200,000 gallons of raw sewage over the past four years into the Little Patuxent River and nearby waterways, records show.

The military's sewage problems are not the worst in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, where 50 million gallons of waste spewed from Baltimore's crumbling sewers in May. But the overflows at the bases are many times the 10,000 gallons the state classifies as a "major" spill.

"Whenever you have sewage spills totaling in the many millions of gallons, that is significant, and this shows [the bases] are definitely a significant source of pollution to the bay and a threat to public health," said Kim Coble, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "This clearly speaks to the point that the military has a role to play in bay cleanup and protection."

Military officials say they've spent more than $11 million to repair problems at the three bases, but that any major upgrades at the Army plants won't happen until decisions are made about bringing in private contractors to run them. The military "is deeply committed to responsible environmental stewardship in Maryland and elsewhere," said Lt. Christine Ventresca, a spokeswoman for the Navy.

Last year, the General Assembly enacted legislation proposed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. that imposes a surcharge on public water bills to raise money to pay for improvements to sewage-treatment plants. The fee was expected to raise $65 million a year to fix up plants, which are a major source of bay pollution.

The Department of Defense has been saying since January that its agencies won't pay. Navy lawyers, leading the fight on behalf of all three branches of the military, say federal agencies are immune from local taxes.

"We have had some preliminary discussions with the state of Maryland and are currently working with the office of the Secretary of Defense to analyze this statute," Ventresca said. "We are hopeful of reaching an amicable resolution."

The Maryland Department of the Environment told the military in February that the Navy, Army and Air Force should pay into what the state is calling its Bay Restoration Fund, saying the surcharge is a fee, not a tax. Homeowners are billed $2.50 on their monthly water bills, with businesses, state agencies and other large institutions paying more. The $65 million generated annually will be doled out to improve outdated sewage treatment plants.

If the military paid into the fund, it could use some of the money to improve its sewage treatment plants and help clean up the bay, Nancy W. Young, assistant state attorney general, wrote to the Navy in a Feb. 28 letter.

"It is appropriate that the Navy pay the fee," Young wrote. "Because all streams draining to the Chesapeake Bay discharge pollutants to it, all wastewater treatment plants discharging ... to such streams are responsible for the cost."

Richard McIntire, a spokesman for the MDE, said the history of illegal spills from the bases is one reason they should contribute to the bay cleanup. "We've always said that we hope that anyone who has any discharge would participate in this fund," he said. It's unclear how much military bases would pay into the fund, but McIntire estimated it would probably be less than 1 percent of the total.

The Sun reviewed state records showing the bases' compliance with clean-water laws after a Maryland Public Information Act request.

The records show nine major spills from Aberdeen Proving Ground's Edgewood wastewater treatment plant over the past two years, the largest a 1.5 million gallon overflow of partially treated sewage into the Bush River in September 2003. Many of the overflows happened when heavy rains or melting snow flushed storm water into leaky or poorly designed sewage pipes, overwhelming the plant.

George Mercer, spokesman for Aberdeen Proving Ground, said the base fixed some sewage lines in the 1990s and installed new pumps at its Edgewood plant in 2002. Those improvements reduced overflows by 70 percent, he said. But they did not prevent the more than 5 million gallons in spills since 2003.

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