Editorial: Wastewater treatment project expensive, but worthwhile

The City of Westminster is about to undertake the most expensive project in city history, a more than $70 million overhaul of its wastewater treatment facility. The facility would serve everyone on the Westminster water and sewer system, including roughly 15,000 people who live outside city limits.

While it is an expensive project, it is a worthy one that will allow the city to do a better job of reducing water pollution in the state and also includes efficiencies that will allow the city to save money in operational costs of treating wastewater.


Upgrades for the plant have been in the works for over a decade and will reduce emissions of nutrients like nitrogen and phosporus that, ultimately, end up in the Chesapeake Bay. Liquid discharge from wastewater treatment plants is among the most prominent contributors to excessive nutrients in the Bay, which fuel the growth of algae blooms and create conditions that can be harmful to aquatic life.

The new facility is required to meet updated emission targets from the Maryland Department of Environment, reducing nitrogen from 8 milligrams per liter annually and phosphorus from 2 milligrams per liter monthly, to 3 and 0.3 milligrams per liter, respectively.

It will also include upgrades to filters that capture biosolids from the wastewater that were installed way back in 1988 and 1990, and are four years past their expiration dates. It would improve the capture rate to more than 20 percent, from the 12 to 13 percent rate that current exists.

Grant money is expected to cover more than half of the total $73.5 million cost, most of which is coming from the Bay Restoration Fund, which all state residents who utlize a public wastewater treatment plant contribute to with the $5 monthly fee on their water and sewer bill.

While making these upgrades will be expensive, the project will also implement several elements that will improve efficiencies over the life of the plant.

For example, Westminster Public Works Director Jeffrey Glass plans to include a geothermal system to heat and cool all buildings of the plant using the warm, raw sewage as the energy source. The system is anticipated to cost about $672,000, but will be paid for through a state grant for alternative energy that will cover the entire cost. It will replace the use of inefficient heating units at the existing wastewater treatment plant, and should lead to some significant savings in monthly energy costs at the new facility.

The solids that are removed will also be processed and aerated so that dried materials can be used as renewable fuel that would be sold to the Lehigh Cement Plant in Union Bridge, or recycled and sold as fertilizer.

That’s a big upgrade from the current process — both environmentally and financially — which involves the city transporting the sludge to landfills, where they pay to dispose of it. Currently, the city pays approximately $600,000 annually to landfill the sludge, and those costs are expected to continue rising. So not only will the new process save money, it may create some nominal annual revenues.

Again, this is no small project and those on the Westminster water and sewer system will see the costs reflected in their bills. But we applaud city staff for finding ways to improve efficiencies to save money in long-term operating costs and hope that everyone sees the benefits that come from reducing pollution to our waterways.