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A Wastewater All-Star, Part 1

The following is the first part in a series about recent upgrades to an Easton wastewater treatment plant, and how they have helped make the plant more efficient and Bay friendly.

Photo by John Page Williams/CBF Staff.
Where does the money from Maryland's Bay Restoration Fund (aka the "flush fee") go? Does it really make a difference to the Chesapeake?

As of the end of the summer of 2012, 25 of the 67 major wastewater treatment plants across Maryland had completed their upgrades, in the process reducing the amount of nitrogen they release by 1.36 million pounds per year and phosphorus by 198,000 pounds. The other 42 plants are in various stages of planning, design, and construction, with all scheduled to complete their upgrades by the end of the 2016 calendar year. The Bay Restoration Fund is a vital element in Maryland's Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint.

That is encouraging information, but it's dry. Much more interesting are the stories of the people behind the upgrades at individual plants. Those who do their jobs well are among the All-Stars of the Clean Water Blueprint. Here is the story behind one plant, operated on the Eastern Shore by Easton Utilities

In the 1980s, Easton Utilities built a model plant for the time, using Biological Nutrient Removal, in which the plant operators sprayed wastewater over a 70-acre, terraced field on which they grew hay. Biological and physical processes in the soils treated the wastewater as it flowed slowly toward the plant's discharge into the Choptank River below Dover Bridge. The plant was one of several of this type around the Bay watershed, all sited in areas where using agricultural land was less expensive than creating compact chemical/mechanical systems.

The plant served Easton well for nearly 20 years, but as the town's population grew and the discharge requirements got tighter under commitments to treat waste to the limit of technology, Easton Utilities and the Town Council recognized in 2001 that it was time to begin planning a new one. The terrace system had worked reasonably well for most of each year, but cold winter temperatures slowed the soil processes too much to meet the new limits. Hence they began conversations with Stearns & Wheeler, an environmental engineering design firm in Bowie, MD (now part of GHD, a global firm), and with the Easton community at large.

As is often the case with large infrastructure projects like this one, there was some apprehension in the community about issues like cost, siting, delivery systems, aesthetics, and growth politics. When we visited the plant in 2009, Geoff Oxnam, who was then Communications Manager for Easton Utilities (he's now VP/Operations) commented that Stearns and Wheeler, "did a great job working with the town and the public on design and construction, as well as overall wastewater issues. Between the firm's experienced engineers and Easton Utilities staff, we were able to bring in stakeholders early in the process, make our people available to the public, and create dialogue that brought citizens on board, especially through an open house in the Town Council meeting room." 

Alan Girard, Director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Eastern Shore Program, commented that he "attended one of those open houses and was impressed with how they got the project out in front of the public. Rates were going to increase regardless, and they hit that point on the head by making the case for the need and assuring the public that they were committed to minimizing the impact on their wallets."

Stay tuned in the coming days for more on how this revolutionary new plant came to be and what it means for our waters and Bay. In the meantime, learn more about wastewater treatment plant issues here on our website.

—John Page Williams


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