Officials at the commission said that it will take time to determine the size of the events but that compared with disruptions in past storms, the size of the overflows was small.
During Hurricane Irene last year, 4.3 million gallons of diluted sewage overflowed in Upper Marlboro, and 13.7 million overflowed at a treatment plant in Accokeek, according to the WSSC. The District reported that 200 million gallons overflowed.
As news of Howard’s spill spread Tuesday, County Executive Ken Ulman (D) sought to reassure residents, saying that drinking water was safe to consume and that the spill was 90 percent storm water and 10 percent raw human sewage.
But Anne Arundel health officials declared an emergency and closed their county’s portion of the river, which is downstream from Howard, warning residents to keep away until further notice. Sewage overflows carry high levels of bacteria that can lead to serious illness.
“People coming in contact with affected water should wash well with soap and warm, clean water immediately,” Anne Arundel health officials said in a statement. “Clothing should also be washed.”
The Little Patuxent treatment plant serves Columbia, but it has struggled to keep up with capacity as the community and county have grown. Until this year, residents had complained about its smell and environmentalists had criticized leaks that allowed pollution to slip into the river.
“We’ve had a history of problems with this particular plant, leaks and transparency problems,” said Fred Tutman, the Patuxent Riverkeeper.
Tutman said pipes that run between the plant and Columbia had infiltration problems — cracks that allowed water to seep in. Tutman said county officials are hard to reach when problems occur and fail to fully explain the problems when they engage with residents.
County spokesman David Nitkin disagreed, saying that Howard has responded. “While there have been problems, there have been steps to address those problems,” he said. The county spent $135 million on upgrades at the plant over the past five years, Nitkin said.
The smell of excrement that lingered every summer disappeared last year, said Myra Phelps, who lives near the plant. But Monday and Tuesday’s spill is cause for concern after the millions spent on an upgrade, she said.
“It kind of disturbs me that they’re having this kind of problem after spending all that money to upgrade,” said Phelps, a member of the Savage Community Association.