In obtaining the County’s approval to permit the huge Lakeside subdivision to begin, the Town of Trappe, and apparently others “in the know,” withheld important information about serious problems with the operation of the existing Trappe wastewater treatment plant from the County Council, the Talbot Planning Commission, the Public Works Advisory Board and the public.
As a matter of process, withholding critical information should be unacceptable. As a matter of substance, the status of that plant is important because the first 120 homes—maybe twice that number, really—are supposed to be hooked up to that decades-old plant that is failing every month to meet even its out-of-date discharge limits.
What we know for certain is this: the latest MDE plant inspection (2/14/19) found the plant to be in “Significant Category 1 Non-Compliance.” Moreover, for twenty-seven of the thirty months from April of 2018 through October of 2020—during the very period that Lakeside was being reviewed by the Planning Commission, the Public Works Advisory Board, the County Council, and (in theory) the public—the Maryland Department of Environment (“MDE”) reported ZERO nutrient load in the effluent discharged by that plant, which is impossible. Nevertheless, MDE was reporting “No Violation Identified.” Maybe no reports were filed, I don’t know. (But that itself would be a violation of regulations.) It wasn’t until November 2020, four months after the County Council adopted Resolution 281 (the act needed for Lakeside to proceed), that ZEROs stopped being reported.
How can it be that no one knew this? How could the Council have approved of the developer hooking up more homes to the Trappe plant in this circumstance?
And putting this all into context: every single month of 2021 the Trappe plant has failed to meet nutrient limits by wide margins—like 219% in February, 244% in March!
The data above are all from the authoritative EPA website called “Enforcement and Compliance History Online (ECHO)” showing monthly data from mandatory discharge monitoring reports (“DMRs”) from Maryland’s wastewater treatment plants, including the existing Trappe plant. (https://echo.epa.gov/effluent-charts#MD0020486; click on “Download All Data.”)
That the Town of Trappe and others “in the know” revealed none of this to the County Council, the Planning Commission, the Public Works Advisory Board (“PWAB”) and the public is confirmed by a careful review of the publicly available transcripts, video, and minutes of three meetings of the PWAB, four meetings of the Planning Commission, and two meetings of the County Council (one of which was the public hearing), all of which took place in 2020.
Discussion of the status of the Trappe plant did come up in those discussions, and what the reviewers received, purposefully or otherwise, was a good deal of dissembling, non-responses, omissions, obfuscation, and in one or two instances, answers that seem to be misleading. Check the transcripts. For example:
- When Planning Commissioners asked about the obvious implications of MDE’s recent refusal to permit connection of eleven homes on Howell Point Road to the Trappe plant, the answer was confusing and ambiguous.
- When Commissioner Ghezzi asked the Talbot County engineer straight up, “Could the current treatment plant even handle this [connecting 120 homes]?”, a meandering discussion ensued. The then County Attorney (who is now “of counsel” at the Applicant’s law firm) said, “But is the system operating up to the MDE standards? I can’t answer that right now. They collect monitoring reports, I guess, each month that has the data for what sort of output the facility is doing. However, that is an existing facility that is approved by MDE…”, and so Ms. Ghezzi’s question was never directly answered.
- Immediately prior to the County Council’s final vote on Resolution 281 (which gave the project its go-ahead), Ms. Price and Mr. Leasher were pressing the Applicant and the County Engineer about the status of operations at the Trappe plant, when President Pack ended discussion with this statement: “I don’t believe that the wastewater treatment plant is substandard. I believe it is discharging according to its MDE permit. The levels are within its permitted MDE applications. So I wouldn’t say that the plant is substandard at all….I don’t think the plant is currently facing any type of violation at this time.”
In every instance the Applicant’s attorney, the County Engineer, and the County Attorney were in the room and said nothing about the plant’s most recent inspection status or the curious fact that discharge monitoring reports were showing ZERO nutrient discharge….an impossibility. I do not know who else knew what at the time, but the Town of Trappe—who partnered with the developer as “the Applicant”—surely knew the truth. The Applicant’s attorney seems always well prepared, and it would be reasonable to expect him to know the facts too, and perhaps the County’s staff concerned with wastewater issues, even though they do not have authority over that plant. But those are just assumptions.
The good news is that last week I wrote directly to all of the County authorities and provided detailed information on these matters. Call me naïve, but I believe this will be appropriately investigated and responsible people will get to the bottom of it. But immediate rescission of Resolution 281 is necessary and appropriate while this important issue is assessed.
Finally, I would like to point out that this issue is completely independent of the initial reason I called for rescission of Resolution 281 ”without prejudice:” that after getting the greenlight from the County to start Lakeside, the developer made significant changes to the plans for the new wastewater treatment plant and its spray irrigation. Those changes seem to be serious, and appear to be the basis for Judge Kehoe remanding the discharge permit back to MDE for a new review and public hearing. The County Council still refuses to abide by its own Rules of Procedure and let me present a petition calling for rescission of 281. The Acting County Attorney’s answer to my complaint in the Circuit Court of Talbot County is not due till later this month.
The withholding of important information by an Applicant—including one of our own municipalities, no less– is a compelling reason for rescission of Resolution 281, separate from the post- approval plan changes. Anyone wishing to express support for, or join in, Petition 20-01, which is very much alive, should simply send a short email to that effect to [email protected].
Dan Watson is the former chair of Bipartisan Coalition For New Council Leadership and has lived in Talbot County for the last twenty-five years.