The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection in October plans to make its first formal grants to municipal wastewater treatment plants that incorporate nutrient control technologies in the Bay watershed.
This year, DEP Secretary David Hess announced it would use all of the $3.3 million set aside for New and Innovative Wastewater Technology Growing Greener Grants to reduce nutrient discharges in the Susquehanna and Potomac basins.
“These grants will help reduce the local cost for the nutrient-reduction portions of their projects,” Hess said.
The grants program will pay up to 80 percent for the local design or construction costs for the nutrient reduction portion of wastewater treatment projects. By selecting the best projects, the state may be able to reduce nitrogen discharges by about 1 million pounds a year, said John Murtha, of the DEP’s Division of Wastewater Management.
Historically, Pennsylvania has focused on controlling agricultural runoff to reign in nutrients. Wastewater treatment plants and other point sources account for about only 11 percent of the nutrients from the state, but the amount of nitrogen they discharge was trending upward from 1985 through 2000, according to Bay Program figures.
Some have sought more aggressive action from the state because point sources have the ability to deliver quick nutrient reductions for the Bay, while runoff controls often take years to yield results, in part because many nutrients enter waterways slowly, through groundwater.
But, “we haven’t been ignoring these point sources,” Murtha said. The DEP drafted a point source control plan several years ago, he said, and while it was never finalized, department officials used it to urge local treatment plant operators to consider using nutrient control technology when upgrading.
Although the Growing Greener grants are the first formal money for nutrient work, the department occasionally funded wastewater nutrient control efforts from other sources.
“It’s an opportunistic approach,” Murtha said. “If they are going to do the upgrade work anyway, it is cheaper to go a step further than it is to come back later and retrofit.”
As a result of those efforts, 26 of the 149 major point sources — those that discharge 400,000 gallons or more per day — in the Bay Basin discharge nitrogen at a rate of 8 milligrams per liter of water or less. Another 14 are planning to achieve a similar level of treatment. Plants without nutrient reduction technology typically discharge around 22 mg/l or higher.
By 2000, those actions reduced nitrogen discharges by 400,000 pounds less than what the DEP had projected. Still, total nitrogen discharges that year were 13 million pounds, a 12 percent increase from 1985.
The largest single point source reduction in the state has come not from a wastewater treatment plant, but from Osram Sylvania’s manufacturing facility in Towanda, on the Susquehanna.
Pollution prevention actions that saved the plant nearly $300,000 also reduced nitrate discharges by 693,000 pounds last year, and plant officials have said they may be able to reduce another 350,000 pounds this year, nearly eliminating nitrogen discharges from the facility.