County Disputes Water Quality Report

SNOW HILL – A report that bacteria levels in the water at Public Landing have been too high several times in the last year due to septic system leaching into the bay has been disputed by Worcester County, which released a statement this week contending the at-times high bacteria levels are due to stormwater run-off.

“I don’t like the ‘sky is falling’ thing and that’s why we had to respond and correct the record,” said Bob Mitchell, director of Worcester County’s environmental programs department.

The county press release acknowledges the high levels of enterococcus, which is found in human and animal waste, in the bay did occur, but contended that the source was stormwater run-off, not septic systems.

Mitchell explained in an interview that high run-off equals high bacteria. The septic systems near Public Landing are not a large part of the problem in his view.

“We do sanitary surveys. A lot of those [septic systems] have been upgraded. They’re not so bad,” Mitchell said.

In the press release, Mitchell stated, “It is reasonable to conclude that the lack of run-off entering the bay from the storm water outfalls in the Public Landing parking lot is the key factor in differences in bacteria levels between the 2006 and 2007 bathing season,” said Mitchell. “Run-off from storm water events is a huge factor in beach closings state wide and is by far the largest source of contamination in this area.”

The results of a study by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) showed that the enterococcus bacteria levels at Public Landing was too high 40 percent of the time in 2006.

Assateague Coastkeeper Kathy Phillips said in the original release, “The Public Landing neighborhood has very old septic systems that leach enterococcus bacteria in the ground water, which then flows along ditches and grassy swales during high rain events and eventually ends up discharging out of two drainage pipe directly into the bay near the pier at the Public Landing parking lot.”

The Assateague Coastal Trust (ACT) release also stated that stormwater run-off is a component of the high bacteria counts.

“Stormwater run-off from surrounding yards and agricultural fields also finds its way to the lower lying parking lot and flows directly into a metal grate that drains directly into the bay waters near the pier,” it said

Only one septic system in the Public Landing neighborhood is currently considered a failed system, Mitchell said, and that is slated for upgrades.

“I stand by what I said,” Phillips said. “I didn’t say failed or failing septic systems. I said aging septic systems. It’s old technology. It doesn’t do as good a job filtering out what’s leaching into the ground.”

In the press release Phillips suggested that bio-retention areas and buffers be installed around the parking lot to filter the run-off.

The Coastkeeper recalled in an interview this week that plans for bioretention areas at the Public Landing parking had been made, but not implemented, despite a $10,000 grant awarded to the county by the Maryland Coastal Bays Program.

Now the county says there are plans to add those options to the parking lot, but did not say when the work would begin.

Phillips called for a proactive septic system inspection program to replace the current practice of inspecting systems only when the county is notified of a problem.

“I think people need to be more aware of what happens when they flush the toilet,” Phillips said.

Phillips said the press release was meant to light a fire under people.

“If this got people talking about septic, which nobody ever wants to talk about, then mission accomplished,” Phillips said. “I just want the dialogue started.”

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