I’m standing on the banks of the scenic Monocacy River in central Maryland, near Frederick. As the sun sets, a full moon rises illuminating ragged rows of bone-white sycamores that flank the waterway as it winds through an historic landscape of Civil War battlefields.
Leaves drift by in the moonlight, like tiny brown kayaks. And in fact, both the city of Frederick and the state of Maryland aggressively promote the Monocacy River for its kayaking and fishing.
But here on the river, you can hear a loud sound. It’s the sound of a waterfall that cascades into the river, down a tumble of granite boulders. You can tell it’s not a natural waterfall because the rocks are stained black and because of a powerful smell of ammonia: the gut-wrenching reek of raw human waste.
The waterfall pours into the river from the Frederick City Wastewater Treatment Plant. The Environmental Integrity Project examined EPA and state records for the Frederick sewage plant and found that the plant dumped twice as much nitrogen pollution into the river – nearly 200,000 pounds --as its permit allowed last year. The problems continued into 2017, with the plant discharging – just from January through September – 30 percent more nitrogen pollution than it is legally permitted to release for an entire year.
Inspection reports on file at the Maryland Department of the Environment show that Frederick was scheduled to have completed an upgrade and modernization of the plant more than six years ago. But the $45 million project has been plagued with delays.
I called Stona Cosner, superintendent of Frederick’s wastewater plant, to ask when the improvements will be finished.
“Well, it’s scheduled to be done in January of next year,” Cosner said. “But the contractor is asking for an extension, and that’s just being presented to us, right now. So this is highly likely that this is going to run to July of 2018.”
Despite years of delays and pollution violations, Maryland regulators have only fined Frederick a tiny amount -- $1,600 in 2015, state records indicate.
Lax enforcement like this is a problem across the Bay watershed. Records show that 12 sewage plants which treat half of Maryland’s wastewater were in violation of their permit limits last year – including the state’s largest, Baltimore’s Back River and Patapsco plants; but also facilities in Salisbury, Westminster and Anne Arundel County.
Betsy Nicholas is executive director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake. She said she is disturbed that both EPA and Maryland have been issuing rosy reports about upgrades to Maryland sewage plants, when in fact some of these improvements are behind schedule.
“I wonder if we’re causing some problems and misunderstandings by saying that some of those goals have been met, when we have this tardiness and we have these continuing violations,” Nicholas said. “Because having the agencies say that suggests to people that there isn’t still a problem, and there is a problem.”
A spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment said in a written statement that that the state is pushing sewage plants to complete modernization projects as soon as possible, including by imposing penalties, when warranted.
“In general, project delays are due to the complexity of the upgrades, as Maryland is upgrading its wastewater treatment plants to the limit of technology while ensuring the continued operation of these facilities during construction,” said Jay Apperson, Deputy Director of the Office of Communications at the agency.
Although a dozen of these projects are late, including in Baltimore and Frederick, Maryland has completed upgrades to 53 of its 67 large sewage plants. That’s a higher percentage than any other state in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.