CENTREVILLE - State environmental officials, probing allegations that millions of gallons of raw sewage were routinely dumped from an aging treatment plant here into a tributary of the Chester River, say recent water quality tests have ruled out any immediate health hazard.
Samples taken from the Corsica River during the past two weeks by the Maryland Department of the Environment show that the 45-year-old facility continues to release unacceptable levels of phosphorus and nitrogen, nutrients linked to the decline of the bay.
Other pollutants, such as fecal coliform, a bacteria found in human or animal waste, were within acceptable levels, said Jeffrey R. Welsh, MDE's communications director. Dissolved oxygen and pH levels also were within normal ranges, he said.
"Fecal coliform would be of the most concern, and the tests show it's not presenting any major health concern," Welsh said.
Welsh said the nitrogen and phosphorus levels are not surprising. A 2001 consent agreement with the state detailed rules for operating the Centreville plant until a $9 million replacement is finished this summer - more than two years behind schedule.
Two weeks ago, news reports outlined accusations from Robert Griffith, the former plant operator who released documents that show a pattern of spills and other problems at the plant. Griffith, who says he was fired for releasing the documents, also wrote a letter to the Town Council outlining problems with the plant.
As the controversy unfolded, Centreville's Town Council fired Griffith's former boss, longtime Town Manager Terrence E. Adams, and let go Town Attorney Jonathan Hodgson when his contract expired last week.
The council has also imposed a 30-day moratorium on building permits to slow development. The town's population has jumped from about 1,900 to 2,600 since 2000.
Sveinn Storm, a frequent critic of town officials who hired a Baltimore firm to do independent water quality tests, said he remains skeptical of MDE's results.
"I guess we have to take whatever numbers they come up with - they've got the whole world watching them" Storm said. "I have reservations. I'm still afraid they're going to try to sweep this under the rug."
Stung by critics who say MDE's oversight was lax, the agency has released nearly 150 pages of documents filed monthly in 2002 and 2003 by the town - a self-reporting system that officials say gave them no indication anything was amiss.
"We saw some levels over what's specified in their discharge permit," said David Lyons, an enforcement officer with MDE's water management administration. "But we did not see a consistent pattern [that the plant] was overloaded or that there were significant discharges going on."
Carol Coates, another MDE enforcement officer, said the records show that the plant exceeded approved phosphorus levels four times in two years, drawing fines totaling $1,000.