More than 150 people largely filled the curling rink at the Talbot County Community Center to urge state environmental officials to deny a wastewater discharge permit for the Trappe East/Lakeside wastewater treatment plant.
Nearly three dozen spoke during the Thursday night public hearing on the Maryland Department of the Environment’s draft permit for the project, which would allow an annual average of 540,000 gallons per day of treated effluent to be sprayed onto farmland near the Miles Creek.
The crowd applauded every speaker, who each supported the denial or withdrawal of the permit, with most concerned about the environmental impact on the relatively pristine Miles Creek. The condition of Miles Creek is dramatically different than La Trappe Creek and an unnamed tributary of La Trappe Creek into which Trappe’s existing wastewater treatment plant discharges its effluent.
The unnamed tributary, La Trappe Creek, and the Choptank River — into which La Trappe and Miles creeks flow — are all impaired and conditions in the Choptank have been getting worse, not better.
Several speakers also challenged MDE on its failure to enforce permit limits of existing sewer plants and to ensure compliance with the federal Clean Water Act.
Tom Hughes said he has been concerned about the town’s existing plant for more than 20 years.
He said he had stood up in a similar meeting two decades ago and “asked the MDE representatives there how they could consider allowing Trappe to increase its wastewater plants discharged into La Trappe Creek when there was already way too much nitrogen, phosphorus and fecal bacteria in it.
“Here we are 23 years later, and absolutely nothing has changed,” Hughes said. “La Trappe Creek is still grossly impaired and the town is reportedly again violating its discharge permit. We have an ongoing public health hazard in La Trappe Creek and the MDE has known about it for decades.”
He said he had sought 2021 data about La Trappe Creek or the unnamed tributary to compare to data from 1998 and 2003 and had gotten little response and no information from MDE.
“Six weeks have now passed and I still haven’t gotten a direct answer to my simple question,” Hughes said.
Choptank Riverkeeper Matt Pluta said the permit should be “withdrawn and reprocessed as the surface water discharge permit that it is.” (The permit is being processed as a groundwater discharge permit as the treated effluent will be spray irrigated onto farmland.)
“MDE is responsible for setting the limits and conditions for discharging treated sewage in the state,” he said. “And these groundwater discharge permits are issued under the assumption that no pollution will end up in the groundwater or the river.
“This idea that zero discharge will occur is legal fiction. For too long the state of Maryland has been hiding pollution loads under these permits that are damaging our rivers,” Pluta said. “The Choptank River is already impaired and recognized by the state and federal agencies as trending in the wrong way and incorporating more pollution; water quality conditions in the Choptank are getting worse. And it seems that we’re prepared, through this permit, to let that pollution trend continue.
“In fact, in 2015, USGS reported that 70% of the nutrients in the Choptank come from groundwater, which is exactly what this permit is regulating,” he said. “Here we’re talking about a groundwater discharge permit for which the state believes zero discharge to the groundwater will occur.”
He said more than half of the groundwater discharge permits on the Eastern Shore are in non-compliance with permit limits and conditions.
Pluta also said groundwater discharge permits for treated effluent aren’t “even applying common farming practices.
“When the farmer puts down nutrients they do it at the right time and the right rate,” he said. “When a wastewater operator applies nutrients, they do it to control volume, their incentive is to control volume and put as much down as they can.”
While comments largely focused on the permit for the new treatment plant, Tom Alspach of the Talbot Preservation Alliance argued that MDE could not consider the Trappe East project separately from the town’s existing plant.
“You can’t do that. It’s not intended to be a separate undertaking by this developer for this one particular permit,” he said. “It is integrally related to the existing plant. The two facilities are going to be connected by a pipe. It is is intended that flows will go back and forth for an indefinite period of time.
“Ostensibly the first 120 houses from this new development to be served by the spray field are to be connected instead to the existing plant,” Alspach said. “That 120 can be an illusory number, there is no limit on how many houses can actually be connected. The only people that can limit it are the Town of Trappe and the developer. They may have no interest in limiting it if the circumstances are such they can accommodate more.
“There is no period of time limiting for how long the new houses in the Trappe East project may be connected to the existing plant. Those things, again, are a matter of contract between the town of Trappe and the developer,” he said, suggesting home sales would be slow and the spray field would not be developed “for a long, long time” and the developer would pay connection fees and send sewage to the existing Trappe plant “for as long as they can.”
“So in essence, you’ve got to look at these two things together, they’re going to be part of one system,” Alspach said. “And you gotta find a way to keep the new houses from connecting to this existing plant and exacerbate the problems you’re already having.
“I know you applaud yourselves for the fact that despite testimony that the (town’s current) plant is failing that there has not been that many exceedances under the permit,” he said. “That’s because the permit has such lousy standards. It’s not an ENR (enhanced nutrient removal) plant, which is the state of the art (and which) the new facility is going to be built to.
“It’s not even a BNR (biological nutrient removal) facility. It’s less than BNR,” Alspach said. “It’s so bad that MDE would not even allow 11 houses on Howell Point Road to be connected to the plant that have septic systems, because it’s not at least a BNR standards. And you can’t use Bay funds to do that connection.”
Anne Hill said she lives on La Trappe Creek and worries about her grandchildren.
“I’m not a scientist. I’m not an activist. I hate public speaking. I would rather be home. But I came out here because I’m a grandma,” she said. “And I live in constant fear that one of my grandchildren is going to fall into that creek and get seriously sick. It is that bad. You’ve seen the reports. This is a real issue for me. I have a well, it’s a real issue. I’m not talking about maybe, maybe not; this affects my life today.
“I really get upset because every single person has kicked this can down the road. I listened to the planning commission. I listened to the county council. They all said whoa, MDE will take care of it,” Hill said. “You are all gatekeepers. Every single one of us is a gatekeeper to these waterways and we cannot keep kicking the can down the road.
“Where’s the person that’s going to say no, I am responsible for these waterways. It is my job … to stop these things from polluting our waters. You are all gatekeepers, please be a gatekeeper. I’m just a grandma.”
Jim Smullen focused his comments on the need for “quantitative enforceable language” in the permit. Smullen has worked in water resources, engineering and science for 49 years, representing large dischargers for the last 31 years.
He said the state agriculture department”has requirements for 75 days of no nutrient application by farmers on cropland and pasture land.
The Trappe East permit talks about 75 days of storage, but does not detail December 15 to February 28, as a no-spray period, Smullen said.
“The permit needs to do that, that’s critically important,” he said. “The other thing that permit needs to do is to tell the applicants that there is no other way to get rid of sewage once the prohibition is on for no spraying. The permit should say they should have contracts in place for waste haulers for when they can’t spray that’s taken away to other sewage treatment plants. You cannot have a situation where they argue that we need to spray because the tank’s full.”
Smullen also said prohibitions against spraying based on precipitation, high winds, freezing conditions, or saturated soil conditions needed quantitative limits “to make those an enforceable part of the permit.
“So much rain. Stop. Such a temperature. Stop. (D)on’t allow the operators to make subjective decisions about when to spray and when not to spray,” he said.
Alan Girard of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation said there were issues with several analyses in the permit and some factors, such as historic precipitation and extreme weather potential, had not been considered.
At the start of the meeting, Dr. Suzanne Dorsey, MDE’s assistant secretary, said the “hearing is focused on the proposed discharge permit” for Lakeside/Trappe East, but acknowledged concerns about the town’s existing plant.
“MDE regulates the Trappe plant under a separate permit for discharge to surface water. And when our inspections of early last summer found excessive nitrogen levels, we required immediate action to fix the problem,” she said. “An inspection later in the summer determined that the plant had returned to compliance. MDE continues to investigate the cause of this failure and to determine what additional action or corrections may be needed. Continued inspection and oversight will ensure that the plant is capable of managing the existing waste stream and any additional load allocation from growth approved by the local authorities.
Dorsey also noted that the permit “review process is rooted in science, engineering and state regulation and law” and MDE has no authority over land use decisions.
“We do require a permit applicant to demonstrate that a proposed facility has received county and town approvals, such as zoning and land use. Once a local government approves the land use for the facility, MDE evaluates a permit application,” Dorsey said. “And we evaluate it to ensure that the proposed facility’s engineering capacities will lead to results that meet the standards of state and federal law, including limits in the water discharge itself and limits on pollution to any affected groundwater and waterways.
“If MDE’s science-based review finds that all such requirements are met, then the draft permit is open and available for public comment. That’s why you’re here tonight,” she said.
Written comments on the draft permit (19-DP-3460) must be emailed by 5 p.m. Monday, Dec. 6, to firstname.lastname@example.org or mailed, with a postmark no later than Dec. 6, to: Maryland Department of the Environment, Water and Science Administration, Attn: Mary Dela Onyemaechi, Chief, Groundwater Discharge Permits Division, 1800 Washington Blvd., Suite 455, Baltimore, MD 21230-1708.
Permit documents are available online at https://mde.maryland.gov/programs/Water/wwp/Pages/19DP3460.aspx.
The MDE permit is one of two ongoing processes related to Trappe East, a mixed-use project of up to 2,501 homes and commercial uses on about 800 acres on the northeast side of Trappe.
While the MDE is reviewing the discharge permit, one Talbot County Council member has introduced a resolution to rescind changes to the county’s water and sewer plan related to the Trappe East project.
A public hearing on Resolution 308 was held Oct. 12 and will be continued at a future meeting of the county council.