Ulman: Health risk 'minimal' from Howard County sewage spill

Workers at the Little Patuxent Reclamation Plant walk through the plant on Tuesday, Oct. 30 during the spill.
Workers at the Little Patuxent Reclamation Plant walk through the plant on Tuesday, Oct. 30 during the spill. (Photo by Nate Pesce)

Howard County Executive Ken Ulman said there is minimal health concern now that power has been restored to the Little Patuxent Water Reclamation Plant in Savage, which was without power for over 12 hours because of Hurricane Sandy.
During the outage, which began at 11 p.m. on Monday, approximately 20-25 million gallons of untreated sewage spilled from the plant — located a half-mile east of Route 1 and Route 32 — into the Little Patuxent River, Ulman said.
"Clearly this was a very serious issue we were concerned about," Ulman said overlooking the river Tuesday afternoon. "But a very small percentage of what went into the river was waste."
Despite the prolonged outage, which ended around 11:30 a.m. Tuesday, Ulman said less than one percent of the fluid that flowed into the river was categorized as waste.
"This plant treats sewage. It treats whatever comes out of your house from your toilets, your washing machine, your shower," Ulman said. "The good thing is the water was so diluted, because there was so much rainwater, that the health risk is minimal."
Ulman emphasized that drinking water is safe and there is no need for residents to boil water.
"I want to be clear," he said. "There is no issue with the drinking water."
However, Ulman and County Health Officer Maura Rossman are warning residents to avoid standing or wading in the river.
Rossman said that during typical storms there is a normal level of waste discharged into the river, and that Monday's outage simply increased contamination.
"As the river flows down, the waste will become diluted," Rossman said.
The power outage ended after one of the plant's two electrical feeders, located on the north side of the plant, was restored. The second feeder, which passes over the Little Patuxent River on the south side of the plant, is still out.

According to plant officials, the system alternates feeders, and only needs one feeder to operate at full capacity.
Ulman said that because of the amount of power the plant uses, a backup generator, which can only power the plant for 15 to 30 minutes at a time, was insufficient.
Although the plant is now releasing treated runoff into the river, Howard County Bureau Chief of Utilities Stephen Gerwin said it will take the plant four to five days before it is operating like normal.
Currently, the plant services 40-50,000 county households, which is approximately more than 260,000 of the county's more than 300,000 residents.
On average, the plant treats 50 million gallons a day, or about two million gallons an hour, and at the spill's peak, two million gallons of sewage was flowing into the river an hour.
Jay Apperson, spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment, said in the cases of sewage spills, the department's primary concerns are higher levels of bacteria in the water, protecting drinking water sources and shellfish harvesting grounds.
In Howard County, only the first applies, Apperson said, and in that case, local officials should issue a water contact advisory — which they have done.
Eventually, Apperson said, the water flow will cause the bacteria to dissipate.

Bert Nixon, the county's Director of the Environmental Health Bureau, said the impact of the spill on wildlife in the river is minimal.

"Certainly that risk is fairly minimal because the water is diluted out even further, so the waste is a very small overall percentage," Nixon said.

Nixon added that storms of all sizes could pose some impact on the environment because of the volume of runoff.

Meanwhile, Ulman said he is asking for a full audit of the plant and BGE after the cleanup from Sandy.
"We need to work with BGE to get more reliable power to this facility," Ulman said. "I've ordered a full audit of our folks and BGE to see what happened here and what we can do to minimize the chance this can ever happen again."