Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) scientists are concerned a groundwater discharge permit renewal that would enable the Town of Hurlock’s wastewater treatment plant to continue spraying 725,000 gallons of treated wastewater per day onto farm fields puts water quality and wildlife at risk.
CBF calls on the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) to deny the permit.
A public hearing on the permit renewal is scheduled for 5 p.m., Thursday, Dec. 1, at the Town of Hurlock’s City Council building in Dorchester County.
The treated wastewater is sprayed onto fields near Marshyhope Creek, Maryland’s only identified spawning habitat for endangered Atlantic sturgeon.
CBF has identified several issues with the permit:
- The wastewater treatment plant associated with the spray system has been out of compliance with its permit in 12 quarters since 2019—including 8 quarters with significant violations. It’s difficult to understand why MDE would renew the permit when the primary plant's basic operations aren’t working well.
- Groundwater on Maryland’s Eastern Shore contributes about 70 percent of the nitrogen that reaches local streams, according to the Chesapeake Bay Program. There are significant questions about whether crops in the spray field will be able to absorb all the discharged nitrogen before it enters the groundwater and leaches into streams.
- The permit does not adequately demonstrate whether the pollutants being sprayed onto the field could lower dissolved oxygen below levels needed to support endangered Atlantic sturgeon in Marshyhope Creek.
CBF remains wary about MDE’s permits for spray fields in Maryland. Most wastewater treatment plants in the state dispose of treated wastewater directly into rivers or streams. MDE accounts for pollution from these discharges by prohibiting concentrations that exceed nutrient caps in the receiving water or requiring mitigation to ensure water quality is protected. By approving spray systems through groundwater discharge permits that claim “zero discharge” of nutrients will occur, MDE evades its responsibilities as partners in the overall Chesapeake Bay cleanup process. In many permits including the renewal proposed for Hurlock, MDE does not provide sufficient evidence that crop uptake of nutrients will result in zero discharge and that Bay restoration requirements therefore do not apply. CBF remains concerned that the many types of pollutants in treated wastewater won’t be treated by infiltration into the groundwater or taken up by vegetation.
Nitrogen and phosphorus that reaches surface water from groundwater fuel algal blooms, reduce water clarity, and remove dissolved oxygen needed to sustain aquatic life.
Maryland’s spray fields routinely fail to meet groundwater discharge permit requirements. A review of MDE data by Chesapeake Legal Alliance finds that 54 percent of the Eastern Shore facilities—58 out of 108—that hold groundwater discharge permits and were inspected in the first half of fiscal year 2020 were noncompliant or required corrective action.
In response, CBF’s Eastern Shore Director Alan Girard issued the following statement:
“This deficient permit deserves much greater scrutiny. It relies on old studies, unreliable information, and a loophole to bypass Bay cleanup requirements. It puts water quality and endangered Atlantic sturgeon at risk. MDE should deny the permit and instead focus on ensuring the existing Hurlock Wastewater Treatment Plant meets current discharge permit conditions.”
“We urge MDE to conduct a thorough review of wastewater spray fields in the state to truly understand the amount of pollution reaching groundwater and leaching into nearby waterways before it continues to renew or issue new permits for spray irrigation facilities. Given the well documented connections of groundwater to rivers and streams, CBF remains concerned that pollutants are reaching waterways via spray irrigation and not being accounted for in Bay cleanup efforts.”