Several area beaches remained closed until Wednesday after the Town of Chesapeake Beach reported a solids loss into the Chesapeake Bay from its wastewater treatment plant last week.
In the midst of an improvement project that has proved a hurdle for the treatment plant by partially incapacitating it, the town experienced an overflow at the plant after heavy rains last Thursday night, June 12.
On Wednesday morning, North Beach, Windward Keys Beach, Chesapeake Station Beach, Bay Front Park/Brownies Beach and Breezy Point Beach were reopened Wednesday after a second round of health department testing revealed safe conditions for swimming and other water activities, Calvert County health officer Dr. Laurence Polsky said in an email Wednesday morning.
About 200,000 gallons of overflow were released into the bay, Jay Apperson, a spokesperson for the Maryland Department of the Environment, said Monday. The most recent previous spill, which occurred April 30 after heavy rainfall, added up to 2 million gallons, Apperson said at the time.
The cause of the June 12 spill, which lasted from 9:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m., according to a press release, has been attributed to heavy rainfall during a period of three days coupled with the Enhanced Nutrient Removal construction currently underway.
Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, state regulations mandate that the release of untreated sewage requires the closure of beaches until testing verifies that the bacterial count in the water is at a safe level, Polsky said in an email. For this reason, several area beaches were closed to wading and swimming, according to information Polsky provided Friday, June 13.
Test samples taken at each of the previously closed beaches by the health department June 13 revealed potentially harmful bacteria in the northern beaches. Results for retesting being done Monday became available Wednesday morning, Polsky said, and because the bacterial levels are down to a safe level, the beaches have been reopened.
Accidental swallowing of the bay or tidal water in the area could lead to serious illness, the information states. Children are particularly susceptible to bacterial illness that can result from untreated sewage.
Warning signs were posted at access points to the beaches, and local businesses were notified, Polsky wrote.
On Monday, Polsky wrote that the department is not aware of anyone having become sick from the water, but the concern is the possibility of intestinal illness from accidental swallowing of the water in the area.
“Ingestion of bacteria may result in symptoms ranging from mild stomach pains and diarrhea to severe illness requiring hospitalization,” he wrote.
The plant endured three consecutive days of rain, the plant’s superintendant, Jon Castro, said: about 2 inches Tuesday, a half an inch Wednesday and about 2 inches Thursday. This excess water is what overwhelmed the plant and caused the overflow.
At the time of the April 30 overflow, Polsky emphasized that the water supplies of Calvert County residents who get their water from wells were unaffected and that residents do not need to worry about contamination from the overflow into the Chesapeake Bay.
The wastewater treatment plant experienced the Thursday solids loss into its effluent discharge line, which normally funnels the treated water into the Chesapeake Bay, according to the release.
Acknowledging that the plant currently is limited in its capacity as a result of the construction, which has rendered “a couple of tanks out of service,” Castro said the plant’s crew hopes to end the “critical period” of the construction within the next couple of months. Once three oxidation ditches are repaired and two clarifiers are built, the risk of future spills will decrease.
“We’re working as hard and as fast as we possibly can to do it,” he said.
At Chesapeake Beach’s May town council meeting, Mayor Bruce Wahl elected to release electronic alerts via text message and email to residents who sign up after resident Joe Johnson urged the council to do more to alert residents of spills.
Johnson said in an email Friday that the alerts worked, and he received one at 11:30 a.m. June 13 from the health department.
The ENR upgrade construction is meant to significantly reduce the amount of harmful nutrients that are discharged from the plant into the Chesapeake Bay, particularly nitrogen and phosphorus, Apperson said at the time of the April 30 release. These pollutants act as fertilizer in the bay, creating “algae blooms,” or the rapid growth of algae. When the algae dies, it consumes the oxygen needed by other aquatic life.
The project includes the construction of enhanced nutrient filters, new solids and handling facilities and new chemical storage facilities, Castro said.
The project began in June 2013 and is expected to be completed June 9, 2016, Apperson said.
Also, once the construction is completed, Castro said, the plant, which now uses water at the highest rate of any facility in the town, will have developed a system to recycle its own wastewater to use within the plant.
“We’re trying to upgrade the plant for better treatment and to be able to handle different surges into the plant when the project is completed,” Castro said. “It’s something that we have to go through and get through it until the new tanks and things are built. Once this is complete, everything should be fine.”
But until the upgrades to the facility are completed, Polsky said, heavy rains or tropical storms could result in the further release of untreated waste. He encouraged people to check the Calvert County Health Department’s website, Facebook page or Twitter account for updates.