Waste spills fuel 'flush tax' debate

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Three military bases in Maryland have together spilled nearly 20 million gallons of sewage into Chesapeake Bay tributaries over the past decade, raising further questions about the military's refusal to pay the state's "flush tax," aimed at cleaning up the bay.

An often overwhelmed World War II-era waste treatment plant at the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County has flushed 5.4 million gallons of partly treated sewage into the Bush River over the past two years, according to state records.

The Naval Surface Warfare Center in Charles County has received two federal violation notices in the past six years, one for washing coal ash from a power plant into the Potomac River and another for spilling more than 14 million gallons of sewage, records show.

And Fort Meade in Anne Arundel County has spilled more than 200,000 gallons of raw sewage over the past four years into the Little Patuxent River and nearby waterways, records show.

The military's sewage problems are not the worst in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, where 50 million gallons of waste spewed from Baltimore's crumbling sewers in May. But the overflows at the bases are many times the 10,000 gallons the state classifies as a "major" spill.

"Whenever you have sewage spills totaling in the many millions of gallons, that is significant, and this shows [the bases] are definitely a significant source of pollution to the bay and a threat to public health," said Kim Coble, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "This clearly speaks to the point that the military has a role to play in bay cleanup and protection."

Military officials say they've spent more than $11 million to repair problems at the three bases, but that any major upgrades at the Army plants won't happen until decisions are made about bringing in private contractors to run them. The military "is deeply committed to responsible environmental stewardship in Maryland and elsewhere," said Lt. Christine Ventresca, a spokeswoman for the Navy.

Last year, the General Assembly enacted legislation proposed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. that imposes a surcharge on public water bills to raise money to pay for improvements to sewage-treatment plants. The fee was expected to raise $65 million a year to fix up plants, which are a major source of bay pollution.

The Department of Defense has been saying since January that its agencies won't pay. Navy lawyers, leading the fight on behalf of all three branches of the military, say federal agencies are immune from local taxes.

"We have had some preliminary discussions with the state of Maryland and are currently working with the office of the Secretary of Defense to analyze this statute," Ventresca said. "We are hopeful of reaching an amicable resolution."

The Maryland Department of the Environment told the military in February that the Navy, Army and Air Force should pay into what the state is calling its Bay Restoration Fund, saying the surcharge is a fee, not a tax. Homeowners are billed $2.50 on their monthly water bills, with businesses, state agencies and other large institutions paying more. The $65 million generated annually will be doled out to improve outdated sewage treatment plants.

If the military paid into the fund, it could use some of the money to improve its sewage treatment plants and help clean up the bay, Nancy W. Young, assistant state attorney general, wrote to the Navy in a Feb. 28 letter.

"It is appropriate that the Navy pay the fee," Young wrote. "Because all streams draining to the Chesapeake Bay discharge pollutants to it, all wastewater treatment plants discharging ... to such streams are responsible for the cost."

Richard McIntire, a spokesman for the MDE, said the history of illegal spills from the bases is one reason they should contribute to the bay cleanup. "We've always said that we hope that anyone who has any discharge would participate in this fund," he said. It's unclear how much military bases would pay into the fund, but McIntire estimated it would probably be less than 1 percent of the total.

The Sun reviewed state records showing the bases' compliance with clean-water laws after a Maryland Public Information Act request.

The records show nine major spills from Aberdeen Proving Ground's Edgewood wastewater treatment plant over the past two years, the largest a 1.5 million gallon overflow of partially treated sewage into the Bush River in September 2003. Many of the overflows happened when heavy rains or melting snow flushed storm water into leaky or poorly designed sewage pipes, overwhelming the plant.

George Mercer, spokesman for Aberdeen Proving Ground, said the base fixed some sewage lines in the 1990s and installed new pumps at its Edgewood plant in 2002. Those improvements reduced overflows by 70 percent, he said. But they did not prevent the more than 5 million gallons in spills since 2003.

The Army won't pay for a replacement of the more than 50-year-old plant because it is seeking bidders to take over its utilities as part of a cost-saving privatization effort, Mercer said.

"Money is not budgeted for sewage treatment plant upgrades," he said. "The Department of Defense is getting the Army out of the utility business. We are not a water or sewer or gas company. We're the Army, and it would be more appropriate for someone whose business it is to run the utilities."

The Indian Head Naval Surface Warfare Center in Southern Maryland was cited by the Environmental Protection Agency in February 2003 for flushing coal ash from a power plant into the Potomac River in amounts more than 60 times the legal limit, records show.

The base also spewed more than 14 million gallons of sewage in 34 spills from 1996 to 2000, as well as smaller amounts of lead, rocket fuel, paint dust, oil and other pollutants into the river and two nearby creeks.

Jeff Bossart, an acting environmental site program director for the Naval District Washington, which includes the Indian Head base, said the Navy has spent $10 million over the past five years to fix its sewage system by separating storm water lines from sewer pipes, so that the system won't overflow during heavy rains.

"The Department of Defense and Navy make a real serious effort to reduce and treat pollution," Bossart said.

The Army's Fort Meade, near Odenton, has had five major sewage spills in the past four years, the largest a 2003 spill of 117,000 gallons of raw sewage into the Little Patuxent River, which flows toward the bay.

Lt. Col. Rodney Gettig, public works director for Fort Meade, acknowledged past problems with the base's 24-year-old waste treatment plant, including a filter failure, clogs and the breakdown of power generators. But he said that since he took over in August 2002, the base has improved its maintenance program, spending $1.1 million over the past year to replace pumps, install a new screen, add new devices to break up clogs and put in backup generators.

The Army won't spend more on major upgrades to the sewage plant right now because it is taking bidders from private companies, with the goal of turning responsibility for running the plant over to one of them. "We have to be good stewards of the taxpayers' money. Our job is not to spend, spend, spend," Gettig said.

Coble of the Bay Foundation said it is "irresponsible" for the military to refuse to spend more money on treatment plant upgrades, or to participate in a program that could use state funds to improve the facilities.

"If you're part of the problem, you should be part of the solution," said Erin Fitzsimmons, Chesapeake regional coordinator for the Waterkeeper Alliance, a national environmental group. "I think the federal government should be leading by example. It's the federal Clean Water Act, and the federal government should be the first in line to comply and help clean up our Chesapeake Bay."

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