SAVAGE, Md. — The equivalent of about 30 Olympic-sized swimming pools full of sewage spewed into a Chesapeake Bay tributary from a water treatment plant here as superstorm Sandy swept past the Washington area Monday night.
While Howard County officials have blamed electrical outages, and ordered an audit to find out what went wrong, government records show it wasn't the first time that a power failure at the county-run plant set off a sewage spill.
On the afternoon of June 4, 2008, as thunderstorms rolled through the region, the Little Patuxent Water Reclamation Plant lost power, sending about 400,000 gallons of waste into the river, records show.
What's more, accounts of that spill are almost identical to the chain of events that apparently led to the much bigger discharge this week of an estimated 19.5 million gallons of sewage from the plant, which is located in an industrial park.
County Executive Ken Ulman considers this week's power failure "unacceptable," county spokesman Kevin Enright wrote in an email to The Washington Times.
"Clearly there's an expense side to it, but when it's a piece of infrastructure that's this critical, we've got to look very seriously at upgrading the power capabilities there," he wrote.
But some want to know why the latest incident occurred at all if it had happened once before.
"For the county to have experienced this before and apparently not acted is irresponsible," said Claudia Friedetzky, conservation representative for the Maryland chapter of the Sierra Club.
After the 2008 spill, Mr. Enright said county officials installed a large generator to increase response time at the plant from about 15 minutes to an hour, essentially buying more time until power crews could restore electricity.
"The reasoning for this was that this hour would allow [Baltimore Gas and Electric] and county utilities staff time to resolve the typical electrical outage we have seen," Mr. Enright wrote.
Instead, the plant lost power at 11 p.m. Monday, as the superstorm downed trees and power lines across the region, saving its most destructive power for the New Jersey coastline. Utility crews arrived at 7 the next morning, restoring some power within a few hours. And the plant later returned to normal operations.
Mr. Enright wrote that the county has hired an engineering firm to evaluate power sources at the plant "to make sure this doesn't happen again."
The Environmental Protection Agency declined to comment on the spill, referring questions to Maryland environmental regulators.
State and county officials have said there was no public health hazard and drinking water sources were not affected. They also said that while raw sewage spilled into the river, most of the overflow consisted of stormwater.
Still, the spill appears by far the largest accident at the plant in recent years. A state database shows at least eight reported overflows from the plant since 2005, not including this week's incident. Most of incidents were small spills of a few thousand gallons each, but even the larger discharges did not approach 1 million gallons.
The county's assurances didn't comfort Rick Aley, a commercial fisherman who crabs and fishes in the Patuxent River much further downstream.
"I think it stinks," said Mr. Aley, who lives in St. Mary's County but works along the Patuxent River, which is fed by the Little Patuxent River.
"The sewage is going to sink to the sediment and go into the mud," he said.
State officials insist the shellfish beds are too far away to be affected and that if fishermen have any concerns, they should always wash their hands. In addition, much closer to the plant, local health officials ordered parts of the river closed this week and warned people not to have direct contact with the river water.
Jay Apperson, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment, said state inspectors were sent out into the river to test the upstream and downstream waters around the plant.
While he said it's not unusual for water treatment plants to experience overflows during a big storm, he noted that Howard County was working to make improvements under the terms of a consent decree it entered into with Maryland in 2010.
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