BALTIMORE – Upgrades to curb pollution from the region’s largest sewage processing plant could be delayed for years, despite nearly $400 million devoted to the project from Maryland’s so-called flush tax.
Maryland’s money will cover less than half the cost of upgrades at Washington’s 150-acre Blue Plains facility, because two other jurisdictions are involved, Virginia and the District — and neither has dedicated a funding source for the improvements.
And Maryland’s upgrades do little good, said Walid Saffouri, of the Maryland Department of the Environment, if not applied to the whole operation.
“Whatever we’re doing in the state of Maryland, we’re only doing it at 50 percent until Blue Plains is upgraded,” said Saffouri, who works with the Bay Restoration Fund Advisory Committee. The committee was created under 2004 legislation to administer the ‘flush tax,’ which charges sewer and septic users $30 per year to upgrade the 66 major sewage processors.
The Blue Plains project is estimated at $820 million, with Maryland providing about $377 million, said Saffouri. The eventual upgrade to technology called enhanced nutrient removal, he said, would reduce the plant’s nitrogen pollution by more than 1 million pounds per year.
Nitrogen and phosphorous feed algae blooms in the Chesapeake Bay, in turn using up oxygen and killing other aquatic life.
“(Blue Plains) is a major environmental concern, because it’s the largest,” he said. “Their flow is 370 million gallons per day.”
The lack of coordination between jurisdictions, however, sent the plant plummeting down a priority list of wastewater treatment plants reviewed Nov. 10 by his committee. The next two largest plants, Patapsco and Back River, landed at the top. But they lie near Baltimore, entirely in Maryland’s jurisdiction.
“It’s going to take a shared responsibility,” said Jeff Corbin, Virginia senior scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, of Blue Plains’ upgrades.
Nothing akin to the flush tax yet exists in Virginia, but Corbin said the foundation will push for similar fees in the upcoming session of the Virginia General Assembly. He suggested a $1 per household per week charge, along with additional fees for industrial users.
“It’s got to be done,” he said. “You can’t simply turn a blind eye to the largest source of nutrient pollution in the bay watershed.”
The foundation’s proposal, he said, would generate $160 million annually for plant upgrades and agricultural improvements.
The District, though, is not considering a flush tax-type program, said John Dunn, chief engineer for the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority, which oversees Blue Plains.
The staff has been discussing its options, he said, and would consider funding upgrades with raised rates. He added that Blue Plains was already significantly reducing its pollution.
Blue Plains operates under the guidelines of biological nutrient removal, which limits discharges to about 8 milligrams per liter of nitrogen, as opposed to 3 milligrams per liter under enhanced nutrient removal.
“Whatever the limits come out to be, we will meet those limits,” said Dunn. “. . . It may sound like we’re hedging the issue, but we’re really not.”
Studies have found 40 percent of the bay suffers from low oxygen, contributing to a massive dead zone.
“It kills the things that can’t move,” said Corbin, “and the things that can move, they have to move to places that aren’t really suitable for them.”
If Virginia and the District do raise the money in the near future, however, Blue Plains would move up the priority list, said Robert Summers, an MDE representative on the panel.
“Because of its importance, we can’t dilly-dally around,” said Thomas Stoner, a trustee of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation also on the panel. “It’s going to mean various institutions are going to have to come together.”