Three spills prompt state to check APG sewer plant

July 25, 2006|By MARY GAIL HARE | MARY GAIL HARE,SUN REPORTER

With three spills that have dumped nearly 1.4 million gallons of partially treated sewage into state waterways in the past three weeks, the Maryland Department of the Environment is investigating sewer plant operations at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

Sudden, heavy rainstorms caused tanks holding partially treated sewage to overflow Saturday evening, spilling more than 187,000 gallons of sewage into Kings Creek, a tributary of the Bush River, officials said.

Similar spills into the same creek occurred July 6 and 15. More than 1 million gallons, including nearly 24,000 gallons of raw sewage, overflowed from the plant July 6 and another 161,000 gallons overflowed July 15, state and base officials said.

"Overflows, particularly during heavy rainstorms, are not uncommon, but since there have been several at this plant, it is raising concerns," said Julie Oberg, spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of the Environment. "We are investigating to see what remedies are available."

Base officials and staff from the Harford County Health Department are monitoring the creek and the river, both of which flow into the Chesapeake Bay. Officials have posted signs warning against swimming or fishing in the affected area.

"We know this is not a good thing, and we are working with the state to deal with the problem," said George Mercer, public affairs officer at APG. "We absolutely require the state's input, assistance and guidance."

The plant, which dates to the 1940s and has undergone several upgrades, operates in the Edgewood area of the Army base. It can process as much as 3 million gallons of sewage daily, but typically handles less than 1 million gallons, base officials said.

The downpour Saturday pushed nearly 5 million gallons of water into the system within a few hours. With that amount of water, the plant had no time to implement the second phase of its treatment system, which is the addition of bacteria-eating micro-organisms.

Instead, the sewage was immediately chlorinated and then dechlorinated before it was released, partially treated, into the creek.

"We had three or four hours of heavy rain Saturday that raised the level of input to the point where we could not handle it," Mercer said.

`Too much water'

"Basically, we just had too much water come into the system at one time," he said. "We have spent millions to upgrade the system, and it works under every circumstance except heavy, quick rain."

Significant increases in flow, from heavy rain or melting snow, could knock a plant off line for several hours, Oberg said.

Rather than shut down, operators often opt for partial treatment that disinfects and removes most nutrients and bacteria.

"Rather than go off line, the facility bypassed one phase of treatment, but still disinfected the sewage," she said. "By the time it comes down stream, it is diluted."

Upgrades, tanks

The state's investigation may lead to more upgrades or at least installation of additional holding tanks, Oberg said.

The creek area most affected by the spill is already off-limits to the public.

Base officials said yesterday they will continue monitoring the creek and river for at least another 30 days and have posted additional warnings to avoid any contact with the water.

Several dozen calls

Mercer and his staff fielded several dozen calls yesterday from residents concerned about the quality of drinking water, as well as from anglers and crabbers.

The city of Aberdeen supplies the base with drinking water from the municipal system.

"This is a serious concern, but there is no direct impact on drinking water," Mercer said.

"Kings Creek is off limits to the public, but this water does drain into the Bush River and the bay," he said. "It dilutes along the way, but people should use their own good judgment."

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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