ANNAPOLIS – When Hurricane Isabel knocked out power across Prince George’s County, 96 million gallons of hazardous untreated sewage mixed with storm water and overflowed into Western Branch and Broad Creek.
The two massive overflows, greater than all sewage overflows from sanitary systems across Maryland in 2001 and 2002 combined, has prompted the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission to install massive generators at both facilities over the next two years at a cost of $1.2 million. Both operations relied on dual electrical power — basically two feeds from the area’s power grid — to continue to operate in emergencies.
“Isabel cemented the fact that dual power was not going to be as reliable,” said Chuck Brown, spokesman for WSSC.
Overflows from sewage systems designed to be separate from storm water collection, called sanitary sewer overflows, are prohibited by the federal Clean Water Act and are the target of federal and state compliance programs.
A Capital News Service analysis of sewage overflow report data through October compiled by MDE shows a staggering 110,000 percent rise in overflows in Prince George’s County, which saw almost 107 millions gallons released through October — up from 96,000 gallons in 2002.
The surge in sewage overflows is also the result of record precipitation in 2003 compared to the two-year drought that ended in 2002.
Most of the sewage water released in the county began on Sept. 18 as Isabel spiraled above Maryland.
At around 10 that night, Broad Creek Wastewater Pumping Station and Western Branch Waste Water Treatment Plant, two of the largest sewage treatment facilities in the state, lost power.
Both facilities are capable of processing 30 million gallons of sewage daily, and, while many county residents had no electricity, they could still flush their toilets.
At Broad Creek, backed up sewage overflowed for four days, resulting in a 66 million gallon overflow.
Western Branch’s overflow lasted 26 hours and released 30 million gallons.
“As we saw the energy grid going down,” said Steve Gerwin, WSSC acting chief of production, “you’ve got to make decisions.”
That meant first making sure safe drinking water was available to WSSC’s clients, then worrying about overflows and their potential environmental and health consequences.
But due in part to the events of Isabel, WSSC decided to upgrade both facilities to ensure similar crises do not happen again.
Western Branch will receive a $600,000 back-up generator by summer 2004, and a similar generator will be constructed at Broad Creek by summer 2005.
Yet WSSC does not know of anyone who became ill because of the Isabel overflows, Brown and Gerwin said.
There were no reports of sickness or animal deaths due to the Isabel sewage overflows, said Frederick Corder, a Prince George’s County health officer.
The wastewater released was diluted with rain water, Gerwin said, and was therefore less threatening.
But other experts say that illnesses due to sewage exposure are notoriously difficult to track and often appear to be from other causes.
Sewage overflows are dangerous and require action, said Andrew Fellows, Chesapeake Director of Clean Water Action, a national water-quality advocacy group.
“You’re going to get sickness where people are not going to attribute it to sewage,” Fellows said.
“The problem politically is that it’s literally a hidden problem,” he said, adding that the federal government should pay for more sewer system upgrades. “If it’s not addressed it’s going to get worse.”