By Aleksandra Robinson
CUMBERLAND – At the Celanese Wastewater Treatment Plant here on a snowy day in early December, giant open-air cisterns churn constantly, providing background sounds of quietly bubbling brown water and the hum of machinery.
Increasingly clearer water circulates and aerates and sifts and passes under ultraviolet lights, until the water is clean enough to be released into the Potomac River.
The Celanese plant is the coldest operating sewage nutrient removal facility in the state, said Mark Yoder, utility division chief for Allegany County. He thinks it might even be one of the coldest operating facilities in the country — the colder the climate the plant is in, the more difficult it is to run.
The facility removes nutrients — like nitrogen and phosphorus that contribute to the algae blooms suffocating the Chesapeake Bay — from wastewater before sending the water back into the ecosystem.
“Basically we do just what nature would do,” Yoder said. “We just do it faster.”
The Celanese facility, which sits next to the state prison in Cumberland, is the largest of five facilities owned by Allegany County, one of the least populous counties in Maryland and the county with the lowest median household income in the state, according to census data.
The facility is a bright spot in a county that leads the state in number of gallons of untreated wastewater that flows into state waterways each year, according to a Maryland Department of the Environment database of sewer overflows.
In 2008, Allegany County reported that about 314 million gallons of wastewater, mostly stormwater and raw sewage combined, overflowed its sewer systems, making the county the No. 1 site of overflows in the state.
Because the reporting system is voluntary, overflow information may not be comprehensive and Allegany County’s impact may be distorted.
After an overflow, the water is sampled and the health department notified so that the public can be made aware of the issue, said Allegany County Director of Environmental Health Brian Dicken.
The local newspaper is informed and signs are usually posted.
“You basically have a body of water that’s accepting dilute sewage,” he said. “Because of the amount of rain it takes to overflow the line and because they overflow into larger bodies of water, by the time it enters the body of water it’s dilute.”
But, he admitted, it’s not always a good idea to swim in the water after an overflow.
“If you were canoeing? Not a big deal. If you were bathing in it? That would be a bad idea.”
Sewer overflows can be dangerous not only for humans but also for the Chesapeake Bay, said Jenn Aiosa, Maryland senior scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
“Any time you have untreated sewage coming into rivers and streams that’s not good. Until we can safely say that we’re not going to have any more (combined sewer overflows,) more work needs to be done,” she said.
Overflows in Allegany County, she said, may not necessarily affect the bay, because they are so far upstream, but they can cause larger problems locally.
“By the time that flood of water hits the bay it may not be the biggest problem,” Aiosa said. “But what we have to continually think of, the bay is the sum of its parts so all contributing sources are important.”
Jim Foster, president of the Anacostia Watershed Society, said the upstream mentality is part of what is holding bay restoration back.
“They won’t say it to you, but it doesn’t have any benefit to them to spend this money,” Foster said. “All these local municipalities in Pennsylvania and Virginia and New York don’t see the bay from the same perspective because they’re upstream.”
Foster said he thinks lack of activism leads to delays in funding and fixed systems like Allegany’s.
“It’s just like all the other infrastructure, it’s just out of sight and out of mind,” he said.
Robert Summers, deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of the Environment, disagreed.
He said all 66 major facilities in the state are slated for upgrade.
The problem in Allegany County is that most of the systems there were designed to overflow, said Jay Sakai, director of the Maryland Department of the Environment Water Management Administration.
“They’re systems that were put in 100 years ago or more and this was before the Clean Water Act and it was not intuitive,” Sakai said. “They were simply trying to carry sewage away from property.”
The combined sewer systems, the type of system many towns in Allegany use, Yoder said, use stormwater to wash sewage down the pipes — but when there’s too much rain, the pipe will overflow, forcing untreated sewage and stormwater runoff to overflow the system.
And the outdated system is costly to fix.
The Celanese facility’s upgrade was completed in 2005 for $16 million, Yoder said, using money from the Bay Restoration Fee.
The fee, commonly known as the flush tax, was set up when the Bay Restoration Act passed in 2004, said Summers.
Summers is acting chairman of the Bay Restoration Fund Advisory Committee, which manages the money collected from the $30-per-year-per-home fee.
“At the time, back in 2004, our best cost estimate was just a projection of what the cost would be to update the … facilities in the state,” Summers said. “In the interim, costs have escalated.”
The state is attempting to update all of Maryland’s 66 major sewage treatment facilities, but it’s slow going, Summers said.
In the meantime, Yoder said Allegany is doing its best.
“We’re doing everything that we can do to solve these problems,” Yoder said. “We’re not just sitting back and hoping they go away.”