Salisbury marks new sewer plant’s achievements

After more than a decade of struggling to bring its wastewater treatment plant up to compliance, Salisbury officials celebrated the completion of a new plant that has significantly dropped nitrogen and phosphorous levels discharged into the Wicomico River.

“Our long municipal nightmare is over,” Mayor Jake Day told state and local officials at a ribbon cutting ceremony on Sept. 25. “The wastewater treatment plant used to conjure images of embarrassment and disappointment.”

The new plant is now considered to be one of the cleanest facilities discharging treated wastewater into the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, he said.

The saga began in 2005 when the city undertook a complete overhaul of a decades-old facility, but soon after bringing the new plant online, it became obvious that it didn’t work.

The plant proved only able to reduce the concentration of nitrogen from 21 to 15 milligrams per liter — well above the limit set by the Maryland Department of the Environment.

Nitrogen and phosphorus are blamed for triggering algae blooms in the river and the bay. When they die, the blooms rob the water of oxygen, creating so-called “dead zones.”

Under a consent order which was instituted in 2012 by the Department of the Environment, the city was required to come into compliance with state mandated levels for nitrogen and phosphorous by Dec. 31, 2017.

Under the agreement, MDE could fine the city $300 a day starting the first day the plant exceeded its annual limit for nitrogen or phosphorus discharges for the year.

Construction on the new plant started in June 2015, and the plant has been meeting permit requirements since its deadline, according to city officials. 

The monthly average since then has dropped by more than 92 percent in total nitrogen, and 69 percent in total phosphorus.

This represents a decline of 386,600 pounds per year of total nitrogen and 5,800 pounds per year of total phosphorus entering the bay through Salisbury’s treatment plant in 2018 compared to the old plant.

City Council President Jack Heath, a chemical engineer by training, cheered the new plant’s success.

“These numbers make me happy,” he said. 

Even though the plant has been meeting the permit limits since December of 2017, the upgrades weren’t completed until April of this year. In June, MDE lifted the consent order.

The department provided grants and low-interest loans to the city to help cover the facility’s $52 million price tag. 

The partnership with the state helped the city meet statewide water quality goals that are part of the Chesapeake Bay 2000 Agreement to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus entering the bay from wastewater treatment plants. 

Salisbury’s plant is one of 66 major wastewater treatment plants that discharge into the Chesapeake Bay to have the innovative enhanced nutrient removal treatment program. It is also the largest on the Eastern Shore, serving 37,000 households, said Assistant Secretary of the Environment Suzanne Dorsey.

“All of this is helping us live in a better environment,” she said.

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