Dept. of the Environment Responds to Sen Dyson's Open Letter, Re: Polluted Waterways

On August 03, 2006, Southern Maryland Online published an open letter from State Senator Roy Dyson (D-29) to Frank Wise, Chairman of the Maryland State Water Quality Advisory Committee. In the letter, Dyson referenced recent stories in the St. Mary’s Today and the Washington Post regarding polluted waterways and beaches in southern Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries in general. Dyson continued on to highlight how attempts to pass new legislation to combat the problem were thwarted by special interests. He noted that he suspects the Bay Restoration Fund is paying for new sewage plants—that will probably lead to increased development along local waterways— rather than cleaning up the problem with current sewage plants.

Dyson concluded the letter by calling on the Water Quality Advisory Committee to release a “strong condemnation of this outrageous lack of oversight by our federal, state and local governments.”

Today Kendl P. Philbrick, Secretary of the Maryland Department of the Environment, responded to Senator Dyson. The entire letter is reprinted below:

The Honorable Roy P. Dyson
Senate of Maryland
James Senate Office Building, Room 102
110 College Avenue
Annapolis, MD 21401 - 1991

Dear Senator Dyson:

I would like to respond to the concerns you raised in your open letter to the State Water Quality Advisory Committee that was based on some newspaper articles about beach advisories. It is important to note that MDE took great pains to have a telephone conference with The Washington Post reporter to point out the many positive aspects of the Maryland beach program. None of the positive elements of the program, however, were mentioned in the article. Thus, in our opinion, the article was quite one-sided. I apologize for the length of this letter, but I wanted to be sure that we adequately address your concerns.

Maryland has greatly enhanced several aspects of the monitoring, laboratory testing, and notification associated with our beaches since the enactment of the federal BEACHES Act in 2000. The United States Environmental Protection Agency has provided roughly $250,000 annually to help enhance the activities. These funds have helped MDE increase its land-based evaluations (sanitary surveys) adjacent to beaches to identify possible sources of contamination. Other funds have been directed to counties for special studies such as in Anne Arundel County where they are exploring the potential for using winds, tides, and rainfall patterns as predictive tools for issuing advisories in advance of bacteriological samples, which take 36 to 48 hours to process. Routine sampling has also been greatly enhanced. Prior to the availability of the federal funds, counties and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s laboratory were able to process only about 3,500 samples annually. With the federal funding, we are now averaging 7,000 samples per year.

Counties have also expanded the number of sites being monitored. Some sites are marginally defined as beaches, and some may be more properly described as boat ramps. Erring on the side of public health, these sites are being included in the statistics of “beaches” and a number of these sites have advisories. This is directly applicable to two ‘beaches” in Kent County that have frequent advisories. Those beaches being listed for advisories in St. Mary’s County have adjacent land uses that are marginally conducive to the support of good water quality. Those beaches at Greenwell State Park are in relatively close proximity to a stream that receives runoff from a horse pasture. The relatively high residential density of the community at Golden Beach is also a prime source of contaminant runoff that may be causing elevated bacteriological levels there. The only other two St. Mary’s County sites with advisories this year were Elms Beach Park and Wicomico Shores Waterfront Park. Both had a single advisory. MDE continues to work with all of the counties that have issued advisories to identify the sources of the indicator bacteria, and to then implement measures or procedures to prevent, treat, or relocate the conditions causing the problem.

Two years ago, we worked with local officials at North Beach in Calvert County to resolve an ongoing problem with a stormwater outfall in the middle of their beach. After relocating the outfall, the elevated bacteriological problems were eliminated. This was the intent of Congress when it enacted the BEACHES Act, enhancing monitoring, identifying sources, and then implementing controls. MDE and the local jurisdictions are doing just that. We are giving the public better information so that they can make better decisions and using that information to correct problem situations that were previously underreported.

In regard to communications, MDE is working with local governments, EPA, and to enhance public access to beach advisories. The MDE website is also being revised to provide easier access to our beach information, but searching on “beach” at our main page will readily direct the public to our beach pages. Within those pages, we provide links to county contacts and to earth911. Earth911 provides maps of each beach in each county along with a green (open), yellow (advisory), or red (closed) indication for the status of the beaches. This is accompanied with a date of last update.

You also mentioned some “red tide” conditions in St. Jerome’s Creek. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources conducts most of the general open water monitoring in the state and has a unit focusing on harmful algal blooms. MDE works closely with them and indeed conducts some of the monitoring that they use to track conditions in the state. Without detailed dates and times of the observed conditions, our staff believe that the “red tide” conditions were probably “mahogany tide” conditions caused by members of dinoflagellate algae that commonly occur in Bay waters when nutrient, temperature, and sunlight conditions are favorable. These algae do not typically result in problem conditions, but recent studies do suggest that some species in this family may on occasion and under certain conditions be tied to certain health concerns. The causes of the aforementioned conditions are highly variable and unpredictable, which prevents even the most competent scientists from attributing the cause of a bloom to a specific pollutant source. We are working toward a general goal of reduced nutrients, which generally leads to reductions in algal blooms, but along the way, there are atypical conditions that lead to undesirable situations. We hope that the reported “red tide” was just a reflection of environmental variability, but will work with DNR to better characterize water quality trends in that area.

The Bay Restoration Fund (BRF) was established to provide 100% grant funds for Enhanced Nutrient Removal (ENR) upgrade of 66 significant (major) wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) that are designed to treat 500,000 gallons per day (GPD) or greater and discharge into the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. The rationale for targeting these major WWTPs for ENR upgrades is that their combined flow comprises more than 95% of the total sewage flow generated in Maryland, and therefore it is more cost-effective to implement ENR technology at these large facilities. While MDE believes that upgrading the WWTPs in the Patuxent River Basin is important, it is also important to upgrade the targeted WWTPs.

These 66 WWTPs are being funded at the design capacities approved by the local governments prior to April 30, 2003. The nutrient loading from each of these WWTPs is capped at the approved design capacity. The nutrient caps, which are a critical part of the Tributary Strategies for Maryland, are or will be reflected in the individual discharge permits issued by MDE as the upgrades occur. Capping of these WWTPs at their approved design capacities ensures that nutrient reductions achieved as a result of ENR upgrades are maintained. Funding of these 66 WWTPs for ENR upgrades at their approved design capacities will also allow planned growth to occur where state-of-the-art wastewater treatment infrastructure is in place and discourage sprawl development on septic systems, which consumes more land and natural resources. Any proposed growth beyond the nutrient loading caps may only occur through the use of nutrient trades and/or offsets to achieve no net increase in nutrient pollution. MDE is currently working with the scientific community, local governments and other stakeholders to develop the rules for a trading and offsets program that will be protective of the environment and public health.

It would be unrealistic to assume that no more growth is coming to Maryland, and it is the function of State and local governments to plan for growth in the most environmentally sensitive ways possible. House Bill 1141, signed into law by Governor Ehrlich this Spring, will focus on science-based planning at the Comprehensive Plan stage to ensure that there are adequate sources of water and adequate ways to treat wastewater to protect both the environment and public health.

Although ENR implementation has been ongoing for only a little over a year, progress has been made. Of the 66 WWTPs being upgraded for ENR, 2 are in operation, 10 are under construction, and 35 are in planning/design. Upon completion of the ENR upgrades, these WWTPs will be capable of achieving a concentration of 3 mg/l Total Nitrogen and 0.3 mg/l Total Phosphorus concentrations in the wastewater effluent.

Between 1984 and 2000, as a result of the Biological Nutrient Removal Program (BNR), Maryland in partnership with local governments, had reduced Nitrogen by 15 million pounds per year. ENR upgrades, funded by the BRF, will achieve another 7.5 million pounds per year reduction in Total Nitrogen loads to meet the Chesapeake Bay goals.

In addition to funding the upgrade of WWTPs to ENR levels, the BRF also provides funds earmarked by the Maryland General Assembly for the installation of nitrogen removing systems on on-site septic systems. MDE just completed a request for proposals and selected 10 local governments who will use funds from the BRF to establish local septic system upgrade programs. These programs will include oversight/inspection of nitrogen removal technologies, monitoring of the performance of the systems, and a program for the ongoing operation and maintenance of systems to ensure their proper performance.

Finally, by design of the Maryland General Assembly, the BRF provides funds administered by the Maryland Department of Agriculture to pay for additional cover crops on agricultural fields, which provide an effective way to intercept nutrients on farm fields when they are not planted in commercial crops.
Thus, the BRF is mandated to address the nutrient impacts from WWTPs, septic systems and agriculture. Clearly, it will take significant additional efforts by all sectors of society to effect improvements to the Bay and its tributaries.

I hope this addresses the concerns raised in your letter. If you have any additional questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to contact me at [not published] or Dr. Richard Eskin (beaches issue) at [not published] or [not published] or Dr. Robert Summers (WWTPs issue) at [not published] or [not published].


Kendl P. Philbrick

cc: C. Ronald Franks, Secretary, Department of Natural Resources (DNR)
Frank Wise, Chairman, SWQAC
Editor, Southern Maryland Online


Open Letter From Sen. Dyson to State Water Quality Advisory Committee

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