- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 17, 2000

Billions of gallons of sewage from metropolitan Washington communities are flowing into area rivers when it rains, and it will cost untold billions of dollars to stop it, local and state authorities say.

This year, about 2 billion gallons of sewage from the District of Columbia overflowed to storm sewers and into the Anacostia River and Rock Creek, which run into the Potomac River.

And in Western Maryland, the problem may be worse.

Because the storm water and sewer systems are combined, the effluent intermingles when storm sewers become flooded and the water that runs out of storm drains into the river is contaminated with sewage.

A similar system in Cumberland, Md., dumped an estimated 55 million gallons of sewage into the Potomac this year.

Although that's far less than was spilled from the District, other Western Maryland towns in the Potomac basin have outdated and aging sewer systems that are spewing sewage into the river and its tributaries.

Samples taken by the Maryland Department of the Environment suggest many parts of the Potomac from the mountains to the Montgomery County line may not be safe for swimming.

Fecal coliform levels a measure that indicates contamination from human or animal waste range from 100 to 1,000 bacteria per 100 milliliters from near Westernport, west of Cumberland, to White's Ferry, just above Great Falls, said David Lyons, chief of enforcement for compliance in MDE's water management division.

Maryland requires local authorities to close public swimming waters if coliform bacteria reach 200 per 100 milliliters.

Most communities in the Washington metropolitan area draw their drinking water from the Potomac, but the intakes are located below Great Falls.

Maryland has filed suit against Cumberland, Allegany County, Frostburg and Westernport to force them to set dates for improving their systems a task Cumberland officials say could cost that city $40 million.

Fixing the District's overflow problem caused by combined sewers in older parts of the city could cost as much as $2.5 billion, said D.C. Water and Sewer Authority engineer Mohsin Siddique.

Options and estimates will be clearer when the city completes a $10 million study, including a cost-benefit analysis, in July.

Even this year's 2 billion-gallon sewage overflow which likely is higher than the annual average is just an estimate because WASA did not began collecting the data regularly until August 1999, said Mr. Mohsin, manager of the project to upgrade or replace the District's combined sewers.

Last week, Maryland environmental officials directed municipal sewer system managers to document and report overflows an action required because many sewer systems weren't measuring it.

Maryland communities with systems that are subject to overflows because of aging rather than combined systems have been summoned to meet with state environmental authorities who are planning to sue if sewage overflows aren't curbed, said David Lyons, MDE's enforcement chief for compliance in the water management division.

"It has to be an initiative from the local levels first," said Mr. Lyons, adding that in some communities, officials may be slow to move because of the "overwhelming expense" when weighed against other priorities such as education and public safety.

Maryland also is looking at about 15 sanitary sewer systems that have had numerous overflows. Sanitary systems do not combine storm water with sewage.

"Some of the bigger ones have had hundreds of overflows in a given year," Mr. Lyons said.

The EPA has asked for information about systems run by the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission; Baltimore city; and Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Howard counties. Cambridge and Salisbury also have overflow problems from combined sewers.

A spokeswoman for Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening said that having water quality at such "questionable levels" was "unacceptable," but that Mr. Glendening hasn't made any budget decisions yet that might increase state aid.

"There are revolving loan funds to help," said Glendening spokeswoman Michelle Byrnie. "But these communities need to come and ask for the money."

This year, $66.5 million was available for community sewer improvements from the state revolving fund, Mrs. Byrnie said. Communities must match the loans with contributions equal to 20 percent of the loan. The state made about $2.5 million available for communities that cannot make the match.

Alexandria is one of three Virginia cities with combined sewer systems that overflow. Alexandria's director of transportation and environment, Richard Baier, said the city sewers probably spill about 10 million gallons annually into the Potomac.

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