- The Washington Times - Friday, January 2, 2004

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (AP) — Meeting demands by environmental groups to dramatically reduce nitrogen and phosphorous in waste water that ends up in Chesapeake Bay would be costly, according to a sanitation district serving Hampton Roads.

Upgrading eight of the area’s nine big treatment plants would require an investment of about $520 million.

That, in turn, would cause a 70 percent rate increase that would add about $100 a year to the average residential customer’s sewage bill, estimates the Hampton Roads Sanitation District, which serves about 450,000 customers.

“We’re talking about substantial rate hikes for our customers,” said Norman LeBlanc, technical services chief for the district. “We want to make sure they get something for their money.”

The primary group calling for reductions in nutrient pollution is the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which says the chemical is encouraging choking plant growth.

Hampton Roads treatment plants now release nitrogen concentrations of between 9 milligrams and 26 milligrams per liter. Only two have systems to somewhat reduce nitrogen and phosphorus levels in waste water.

“We don’t see any benefits at this point in time to removing anything more than we already have,” Mr. LeBlanc said.

But change is in the works. Gov. Mark Warner last month announced a task force to establish technology-based nutrient limits for sewage-treatment plants. The state is also in the middle of a two-year process to begin setting nutrient limits when treatment plants renew their discharge permits.

Nutrients cause algae blooms, which rob the water of oxygen needed by sea life to survive.

There is some truth to the idea that reducing nutrients in the waters of Hampton Roads wouldn’t do much to improve the sickest part of the Bay, said Richard Batiuk, associate director of science for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Chesapeake Bay Program.

“It’s location, location, location,” he said.

The Bay’s biggest low-oxygen problem area, for example, is a deep trench in the middle of its northern half. But there are other good reasons to reduce nutrients locally, said Jeff Corbin, Virginia senior scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Each river faces its own set of problems, but excessive sediment in the water isn’t unusual. Mr. Corbin said if state efforts to reduce sediment succeed, nutrients will start causing algae to thrive.

“If all you do is reduce sediment in the lower James and you don’t reduce nutrients, you’re in big trouble,” he said. “You’re just going to turn a brown river into a green river.”

At least one program, a market-based incentive plan, is in the works to help treatment-plant operators fund upgrades. The EPA’s Bay Program is developing it.

“If they make reductions beyond where they need to now, they could generate credits to sell,” said Alison Wiedeman, technology coordinator for the Bay Program.

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