The alleged actions that may lead a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization to sue the county’s department of public works are not new items of concern, a representative of the organization said in a recent interview.
Last month, the Maryland Independent reported on the Potomac Riverkeeper Network’s announcement that it intends to sue the Charles County Board of Public Works in federal court, saying the Mattawoman Wastewater Treatment Plant is not operating in compliance with the federal Clean Water Act.
A letter to Board of Public Works director William Shreve alleges that the county’s public works board has failed to comply with the stipulations outlined in its pollution discharge system permit. Additionally, the letter says, the plant has been “discharging wastewater from the county’s sewers into Mattawoman Creek without a permit.”
In a press release announcing the intention to sue, riverkeeper Dean Naujoks said the plant’s alleged illegal discharges have been ongoing for at least five years. In a follow-up interview, Naujoks elaborated on the problems the pollution can create for both the environment and the community.
“They’ve had some pretty big sewage spills,” Naujoks said. “This isn’t the first time we’ve responded to them. We took a tour of the plant three years ago, and they were making supposedly some substantial upgrades to the facility, so I don’t understand why there’s so many problems.”
The intention to sue notice mentions that in 2018, there were “at least seven” instances of raw sewage being discharged from the facility into the creek, based on the facility’s self-reported spills. Five of the seven spills listed in the report originated from overflowing sewer manholes.
Naujoks said he knows of one “pretty big sewage release” that occurred around a year and a half ago, just ahead of the group hosting a planned paddling trip. Because it was just a couple weeks out from the scheduled outing, Naujoks said he reached out to the facility, but it ended up being unnecessary when heavy rains led to the trip being canceled altogether.
“They said they were going to fix all that, and it just seems like that has not been the case,” Naujoks said.
The health implications of the heightened levels of pollutants are serious, Naujoks said, especially where contaminants like E. coli are concerned. Many people use the county’s waters for recreation, Naujoks said, and with improperly treated water re-entering the Potomac’s local tributaries, folks could unknowingly be exposing themselves to serious health risks, even if they only splash themselves with it. The risks the bacteria present range from fairly moderate risks like ear and sinus infections to potentially deadly illnesses. That doesn’t cover the risks the spills present for the environment, either, like potentially creating algae blooms that harm the aquatic vegetation and river-dwellers.
Naujoks noted that, depending on the course of action the county chooses to take, they may not ever end up in a courtroom. He explained that they cannot file any official legal action until after the 60-day period has lapsed. He said it’s possible that the county and the organization will engage in a dialogue and potentially settle out of court.
To his knowledge, Naujoks said, no one from the county government has reached out to them regarding any potential course of action. “The bottom line is they’re breaking the law,” Naujoks said. “They’re violating the permits. They need to come into compliance.”
Citing the potential for the county and the organization to enter into litigation on the subject, government spokesperson Donna Fuqua declined to comment.
The Clean Water Act, Naujoks said, gives citizens and organizations like the PRKN to hold facilities like the Mattawoman plant to account for the terms of their permits. Naujoks said they notified the Maryland Department of the Environment, and that the state agency may opt to join them in taking legal action. The MDE has so far not announced any such action.