Chesapeake Beach to alert residents of wastewater treatment spills immediately
The Town of Chesapeake Beach has elected to release electronic alerts via text message, email and more after a resident verbalized concern to the mayor and council at the May 15 town council meeting, following the April 30 release of 2 million gallons of overflow into the Chesapeake Bay for the wastewater treatment plant.
The overflow, which was the result of heavy rains and the plant’s being partially incapacitated as it undergoes Enhanced Nutrient Removal (ENR) upgrades, prompted resident Joe Johnson to petition the council, during the public comment portion of the meeting, to do more to inform residents when a spill occurs, citing health concerns.
“I love this town, and I want it to be as good as it can be,” Johnson said in a phone interview. “And when you’re covering up sewage overflows, you’re not as good as it can be.”
Although town officials say they have not covered up past overflows — the town has alerted the Calvert County Health Department and the Maryland Department of the Environment, as well as local media, as procedure mandates — the additional line of communication will help to inform residents of spills much closer to the time that they happen.
The ENR construction began in June 2013 and is expected to be completed June 9, 2016, MDE spokesman Jay Apperson said at the time of the April 30 spill. During the construction, some of the plant’s equipment will be out of service, making it more susceptible to being overwhelmed by heavy rainfall.
Chesapeake Beach Mayor Bruce Wahl encouraged residents to sign up for the alert system through the Calvert County Alert System, adding that he does not anticipate another spill, and that the April 30 spill would not have occurred had the plant not been under construction.
“Our goal is to never have any spills,” he said. “None. Zero.”
Wahl said the spill did not occur as the result of negligence on the part of the wastewater treatment plant crew but called them “very conscientious” as they deal with the “difficult circumstances” of the upgrade.
Johnson, who lives in a bayfront home, said he was “pleasantly surprised” by the town’s decision to enact the immediate alerts. He often sees children swimming in the bay and fears they will be oblivious that they may be at risk when there is a spill.
Johnson said he did not know about the April 30 spill until he read about it in the newspaper about a week after it happened, although an update about it did appear on Chesapeake Beach’s website. Now, he said, if he gets an alert that a spill had occurred, he is going to tell the kids to get out of the water.
“They have a right to know when they’re at risk,” he said.
But Dr. Laurence Polsky, health officer for the Calvert County Health Department, said while it is important for people to have all the information they can, they should be aware that each circumstance is different, and they should avoid generalizing or panicking if there is a sewage release.
Instead, residents should follow up with the health department or the Maryland Department of the Environment to find out whether the spill will directly affect bathing or drinking water conditions.
Past spills have not posed a threat to drinking water, he said.
Regardless of sewage leakage, the health department routinely monitors the water in the county’s bathing beaches, this year starting early in May to establish baseline bacterial counts, Polsky said. The department will sample each at least once a month through Labor Day, checking more frequently as changes in water temperature and salinity, as well as reports of possible man-made contamination, dictate.
A color-coded map that can be found on the health department’s website shows the latest water tests for each beach location.
Donnie Bowen, director of public works for nearby North Beach, sees Chesapeake Beach’s decision as a good one but said taking similar action would not be necessary for North Beach, as the town has just four wastewater pumping stations, not a full wastewater treatment plant as Chesapeake Beach does.
Nonetheless, Bowen said any spill is reported to the required entities, and signs are posted and the public is notified if the spill warrants.