Nitrogen’s impact on bay debated -- Gazette.Net


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The St. Mary’s County commissioners approved some large loans Nov. 2 to move ahead on sewer and water projects. However, Commissioner Dan Morris (R) again questioned the scope of work required by the state and whether nitrogen and phosphorus are even harmful to the Chesapeake Bay.

State-mandated upgrades to sewer plants and new septic systems aim to reduce to the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus flowing into the water.

The St. Mary’s County Metropolitan Commission operates public water and sewer lines. Funded by its own customers, MetCom needs approval from the commissioners for its construction budget. Some $31 million will be borrowed from the Maryland Department of the Environment, and another $9 million for various water and sewer projects in particular neighborhoods.

All of the commissioners agreed to the loans, except for Morris.

To upgrade the Marlay-Taylor Wastewater plant in Lexington Park, MetCom is borrowing $25 million. An additional $10 million comes from the $60 annual bay restoration fee paid by those on septic and sewer systems for the upgrade to enhanced nitrogen reduction.

There are 67 major wastewater treatment plants that discharge into the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment.

All of them have to be upgraded, or there will be penalties.

Morris noted MetCom is mandated to upgrade its main treatment plant while the entire Lexington Park water and sewer system is aging and leaking.

Some of Lexington Park’s infrastructure still dates back to the 1940s and 1950s when the area sprang up to support the new Patuxent River Naval Air Station.

Some of the underground pipes are made of clay, said Jacquelyn Meiser, director of MetCom.

There are several projects in MetCom’s construction budget to modernize the infrastructure there, but it can’t all be done at once with the money available.

Investment should be made in the older systems, Morris said, “versus putting money into something we think will work.”

However, there are substantial penalties for not complying with the sewer plant upgrades. “The penalties are not an option,” Meiser said.

“The civil penalty for permit violation can be up to $32,500 per day and the maximum criminal penalty can be $50,000 per day plus imprisonment for knowingly violating the permit. In addition, willful permit violations could also result in millions of dollars of damages in third-party lawsuits,” Meiser said Nov. 5 in an email. “Until the permit is willfully and knowingly violated, the precise amount of penalties, fines and damages cannot be known. I trust and hope we will not find out.”

The target date to finish the upgrade at Marlay-Taylor is in fall 2014.

In Lexington Park, the system is so old there are many leaks. “I have a real problem with leaks in the system,” Morris said. “A leak in the system does more damage.”

Nitrogen and phosphorus, he said, are “something we don’t know is harming the bay that much. Raw sewage is bad.”

“We take sewage spills very seriously,” said Jay Apperson, spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment. Sewage overflows bring harmful levels of bacteria downstream for a short duration. “These are typically localized environmental health issues,” he said Nov. 5.

“Nitrogen is the most serious pollutant to the bay,” he said. “It’s the No. 1 issue for bay health.” Too much nitrogen feeds algae blooms in the water. The algae dies and is broken down by bacteria, which absorb the dissolved oxygen in the water, killing aquatic life.

Reducing the level of nitrogen in the bay’s waters “is the backbone of the plan” to cleanup the bay, he said, whether it comes from urban runoff, farm runoff, septic fields or sewage treatment plants.

As for the science behind the findings, “This is the best science that’s out there that’s being utilized,” Apperson said.

Upgrading the state’s 67 major sewage treatment plants will reduce the level of nitrogen by 7.5 million pounds a year and 220,000 pounds of phosphorus a year, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment.

MDE said in August the enhanced nutrient removal at the Marlay-Taylor plant will reduce its annual nitrogen load by 48,379 pounds and 20,561 fewer pounds of phosphorus.

Marlay-Taylor has capacity to treat up to 6 million gallons a day, and the Navy has a reserve capacity of 20 percent, so it is paying 20 percent of the $25 million loan.

Meanwhile, an average septic system produces 9.5 pounds of nitrogen a year. New and failing systems will next year be required to be replaced with new, nitrogen-reducing systems, with money from the bay restoration fee available to help pay the costs.

jbabcock@somdnews.com