Small fines for big sewage spills

By PAMELA WOOD, Staff Writer


Last June, contractors working on a gas pipeline in Linthicum made a startling discovery: A 12-inch-wide sewer pipe was broken in two places, spewing raw sewage into a remote stream that meanders through the woods.

They notified the county Department of Public Works, which quickly dispatched crews to stop the leak.

By the time it was stopped, 160,000 gallons of smelly, filthy, bacteria-filled sewage had spilled into Stoney Run, which flows into the Patapsco River and, ultimately, the

Chesapeake Bay. It was the worst sewage spill in the county last year.

The county government’s fine for the spill: $1,000.

In all, Anne Arundel County’s government was responsible for nearly 200,000 gallons of sewage spilling into local streams, creeks and rivers in 2009.

And even as the state pledged a crackdown on sewage spills, the county paid just $3,950 in fines last year, according to a review of state documents provided to the Maryland Gazette in response to a Maryland Public Information Act request.

For most sewage spills, the county pays a fine of $100 – about the same as a speeding ticket. In some cases, the fine is as little as $50.

Low fines are also levied on the city of Annapolis and other sewage system operators. And the federal government pays nothing at all for its sewage spills.

“I am really outraged that the fines are so small,” said Paul Spadaro, president of the Magothy River Association, who has been frustrated by repeated sewage spills in Severna Park and Arnold. “I think the fines are insulting to every resident in the county, particularly the ones who are trying to become good stewards to the environment.”

State officials who enforce water pollution laws, however, defend the small fines. They argue that they’d rather nudge sewer system operators into improving their sewer lines and pumping stations than slap them with big financial penalties.

“This is not a problem that’s going to go away because we fine people,” said Jay Sakai, the top water quality official at the Maryland Department of the Environment.

Dumping raw, untreated sewage into streams, creeks and rivers is illegal, and for years state law set the maximum penalty for sewage spills at $1,000 per day.

As of Oct. 1, the penalty was boosted to $5,000 per day under a bill that was sponsored by two Anne Arundel lawmakers, Sen. Bryan Simonaire, R-Pasadena, and Del. Barbara Frush, D-Beltsville.

Simonaire, like many north county lawmakers, has been hearing plenty lately from constituents who are frustrated about the poor water quality in their creeks.

Marley Creek, Furnace Creek and part of Rock Creek have been closed to direct human contact for decades because of persistently high bacteria levels, and many residents are concerned that the sewage system is part of the problem.

Simonaire said he was inspired to research the issue of fines after hearing from residents of Glen Burnie’s Point Pleasant neighborhood, including Tony Franks, who was the community president at the time.

“My impression was that it was a slap on the wrist or the cost of doing business,” Simonaire said of the fines.

He said the goal of his bill was not to bankrupt sewage system operators – which are mostly local governments – “but to make them aware that this is not acceptable.”

The bill sailed through the legislature during the 2009 General Assembly session, a rare feat in Annapolis.

Simonaire put specific language in his bill to make sure that sewage spill fines didn’t go into the state’s general fund. He wants to see the money spent on improving water quality.

The sewage spill fines go into a pot of money called the Clean Water Fund along with other water-related fines. But that money is not used directly for water quality – it pays for overhead at the Maryland Department of the Environment’s Water Management Administration.

Simonaire, upon hearing that, said he’ll consider revisiting the issue to see that the money goes more directly to fixing dirty waterways.

Spadaro, the Magothy River activist, said he thinks the sewage fines also should go into on-the-ground projects, such as planting trees or raising oysters.

“Whatever actually gets paid should go back to the watershed that has the harm and the damage,” he said.

Small fines levied

Though the fines have increased, they don’t apply to Anne Arundel County and several other owners of major sewer systems.

Anne Arundel County, Baltimore County, Baltimore City, Howard County and the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (which handles sewage in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties) all have consent decrees with the state that spell out improvements they must make and the fines that they pay.

Anne Arundel’s consent decree was signed in 2004 under the administration of then-county executive Janet S. Owens.

Paul Lesher, a utility administrator for the county, said that, at the time, the Maryland Department of the Environment was taking other counties and cities to court over sewage spills. The result often was huge fines and long lists of required, expensive sewage upgrades.

“We felt our system was not that bad,” Lesher said, so the county voluntarily met with MDE to hammer out an agreement.

The consent decree included a one-time $18,000 fine and a requirement for $80,000 worth of upgrades, which is not a lot of money in the world of sewage system repairs.

The consent decree also required the county to send annual reports to the state and laid out a special structure for fines.

Anne Arundel’s fines are $50 for 100 gallons or fewer of sewage; $100 for 101 to 2,500 gallons; $300 for 2,501 to 10,000 gallons; $750 for 10,001 to 100,000 gallons; and $1,000 for spills of more than 100,000 gallons.

The causes of spills are varied. Most often something blocks the line; debris, grease and tree roots are common. Other times, aging pipes – some are 100 years old – corrode and collapse. And sometimes, contractors accidentally damage pipes.

In the past, faulty pumping stations often caused spills, but that has declined to just a few spills per year.

Sakai, the MDE water official, said the most important feature of the consent decrees is the section outlining the responsibilities of sewer system operators to upgrade and properly maintain their systems.

“At the end of the day, it’s the fixes, not the penalties” that MDE is after, Sakai said.

He acknowledged that “$100 for an overflow doesn’t really incentivize anything.” He said that the threat of taking a county to court for not making a consent decree’s required upgrades is much more powerful.

The city of Annapolis does not have a consent decree. In 2009, the city had just one sewage spill – 500 gallons that spilled into Spa Creek.

The city was able to negotiate its fine down from MDE’s proposed fine of $800 to just $300.

Tom Redmond, a Republican County Council candidate from Pasadena, is not keen on the idea of governments getting off lightly for sewage spills while homeowners can face thousands of dollars in fines for unwittingly violating the Critical Areas laws that restrict development along the water.

He has made a name for himself in the past few years railing against what he perceives is an unbalanced system.

When asked whether he thought the sewage fines were fair, Redmond answered: “It’s more than unfair, it’s almost criminal when our government is the one that has polluted the bay for the last 50 years and is trying to blame the average homeowner.”

Fred Tutman, who is the Patuxent Riverkeeper, has been keeping an eye on pollution along that river, including sewage spills from Fort George G. Meade and Patuxent Mobile Estates. He said the paltry or nonexistent fines don’t do the river any good.

“There’s no heat on these guys to do anything but what they’re doing,” he said. “It’s a very lax kind of environment.”

No military fines

And while the city and county governments are paying relatively little in sewage spill fines, the military – including the Naval Academy and Fort George G. Meade – is not fined for its spills at all.

In 2009, Fort Meade, the sprawling west county military campus, had 18 sewage spills totalling 60,000 gallons. No fines were levied against the Army post.

And so far in 2010, Fort Meade has had 10 spills adding up to almost 10,000 gallons of sewage.

Fort Meade just turned over its sewage system to a private company, American Water Operations and Maintenance of Voorhees, N.J., on Aug. 1.

The contract is worth $650 million over 50 years, according to American Water, the parent company of American Water Operations and Maintenance.

The contract includes a five-year plan for modernizing the system, which is antiquated in some respects, said Mick Butler, the chief of Meade’s environmental division. For example, the sewage plant requires more workers on-site than other, more modern plants.

Butler said the main causes for spills at Fort Meade are blocked lines, sometimes because of tree roots, other times due to resident-caused clogs.

“The primary causes are household grease and other household items that really shouldn’t be flushed down the drain,” Butler said.

On reports filed with the state, Fort Meade officials have offered details of blockages, such as “baby wipes and rags,” “household products” and “grease.”

Butler said Army officials repeatedly remind on-post residents not to flush grease, wipes and other items down their drains. But with constant turnover on a military site, that’s a challenge.

The post also regularly flushes out sewer pipes, utilizes cameras to inspect the pipes, and uses “sewer salts” to dissolve grease and roots that block the pipes.

And even though the state doesn’t fine the Army, Sakai from MDE said his agency is concerned. He said there have been talks among the Army, the state and the federal Environmental Protection Agency about Meade’s sewage spills.

Sakai said it’s possible that a consent decree for the Army could soon be developed.

“We want to see they have a plan to address their problems,” he said.

The Navy doesn’t pay any sewage spill fines, either, although the Navy has far fewer sewage spills in the county than the Army.

The Navy reported two spills at the Naval Academy in 2009 – one was 15 gallons and the other was 20 gallons.

So far in 2010, the Navy has reported two sewage spills – 300 gallons at Naval Support Activity Annapolis and 100 gallons from the North Severn Wastewater Treatment Plant.

Ongoing work

Anne Arundel County officials say they are aggressive about trying to prevent sewage spills.

Last week, four top public works officials spent more than two hours meeting with The Capital to explain their efforts.

The scope of the county’s sewer system is massive; seven sewage plants, 249 pumping stations and nearly 1,500 miles of pipes.

“We’re trying to keep our finger on the pulse of these assets,” said Michael P. Bonk, deputy public works director for utility operations.

Public works crews use several techniques for inspecting and repairing the sewer system.

Like Fort Meade, the county flushes lines, uses TV cameras to see how clear the pipes are and uses chemicals to dissolve tree roots. The county owns five “vactor trucks” equipped with long hoses that are snaked down sewer lines to flush them clear.

They also blow smoke down pipes and manholes to see where there are breaks in the pipes or illegal connections of downspouts or sump pumps.

Pumping stations – which sit at low points and pump sewage to a higher-elevated pipe – are inspected annually, and more backup power sources are being added.

A round-the-clock computer system that monitors pumping stations was just upgraded, too.

To fix problem areas, crews have replaced 1,714 feet of pipe and relined 91,839 feet of pipe over the past five years.

The Department of Public Works gets $5.6 annually for its sewer operating budget – which includes some repairs and preventive maintenance – and $5.4 million annually for its sewer capital budget, which pays for large replacement and repair projects.

While Bonk said the department could always use more money, he thinks the funding levels are appropriate.

But sometimes they can’t get the work done quickly enough.

Two weeks ago, a quarter-size hole opened up in an old iron pipe in Manhattan Beach on Dividing Creek in Severna Park, spilling nearly 15,000 gallons of sewage. That pipe was on the list for replacement, Bonk said.

Despite problems like that one, county officials said they’ve made great strides in improving the sewage system and they’re working to make it better.

“We believe we have a highly reliable system,” Bonk said. “Is it 100 percent? No.”

Sewage Spills in Anne Arundel, 2010:

Sewage Spills in Anne Arundel, 2009:

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