WASHINGTON – Maryland is poised to enact tougher requirements for reporting sewage overflows, a move that state officials say will keep the state at the forefront of sewage management practices.
The new regulations, set to take effect at the end of this month, would mandate reporting that is now voluntary for sewage treatment facilities and would require that operators monitor waterway bacteria levels and notify the public in certain cases.
It comes as congressional lawmakers introduced a bill Thursday that calls for a similar tightening of regulations on the practice of “blending” — letting a certain amount of sewage bypass treatment during times of heavy flow, such as in rainy periods — to protect equipment and head off even larger overflows.
The federal Save Our Waters from Sewage Act is aimed at an Environmental Protection Agency proposal that would formalize the practice of blending treated and untreated sewage.
“This legislation would force the EPA to dump its reckless sewage dumping policy,” said Nancy Stoner, director of the National Resources Defense Council’s clean water project.
Without the legislation, she said, clean-water gains will be reversed by “allowing routine sewage dumping whenever it rains.”
“Partially treated sewage contains viruses and bacteria that cause serious and potentially deadly diseases,” said Betsy Otto, senior policy director at American Rivers.
An EPA spokesman would only say that there are significant misconceptions about blending, but that the agency’s proposal is still on the table.
The bill that was drafted in response to the EPA would prohibit sewage from bypassing treatment except in extreme situations. It would force treatment facilities to give a warning of such overflows when they can and to report them within 24 hours after the fact, among other requirements.
Dave Lyons, division chief of water management administration for the Maryland Department of the Environment, said that wastewater officials have been voluntarily following such procedures in the state for years now.
“Lots of places are actively doing improvements to eliminate overflows,” he said.
Maryland is home to over 300 wastewater treatment plants, which process a collective 600 million gallons of sewage a day, according to the department. Maryland plants typically spill millions of gallons of untreated sewage into the state’s waterways in a year, with the biggest overflows during times of heavy rains when the systems cannot handle the surge of storm water and sewage.
A Capital News Service analysis of state data in 2003 showed that sewage overflows skyrocketed by 1,250 percent due to record rainfall, which included Hurricane Isabel.
At such times, plants often hold back a minimum amount of sewage from treatment, which might then be blended with treated sewage at the end of the process.
“They want to be able to treat as much wastewater as possible without damaging the plant,” said Julie Oberg, a Department of Environment spokeswoman.
She called bypassing “the lesser of two evils.” The alternative could be an overflow where completely untreated sewage is diverted into waterways and the treatment plant is out of commission for days on end, she said.
In such cases, nutrient-eating biomasses are washed away and take days to build back up, Oberg said.
Officials say there is no remedy for the problem of bypassing and overflows, but they hope the tougher new reporting requirements will help.
Maryland Reps. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville, Elijah Cummings, D-Baltimore, and Chris Van Hollen, D-Kensington, signed a letter with lawmakers across the country last week asking the EPA to not formalize the practice of blending.
-30- CNS 03-03-05