Six million gallons of untreated, raw sewage water was discharged into the Potomac River near Hagerstown, upstream from the intake pipe for this region’s water supply.
"Some chemical was introduced into the waste water treatment facility that killed an organism essential to the waste-water process," said Chuck Brown, spokesperson for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission.
But Brown, the WSSC, and the Maryland State Environmental Department said this is nothing that should cause concern.
"We don't anticipate any problems whatsoever," said Brown, referring to dilution of the water and the time it would take to get here as factors that will keep the county's and region's water supply safe for drinking and use. "By then, dilution will have played a key role in rendering it harmless. The water process is sophisticated enough to take care of this."
But WSSC's assurances haven't convinced residents and environmental activists in the area.
"I think that is ridiculous. The flow in the river is among the lowest this time of year. We're in a significant drought. One amazing thing about the river — the difference between flood conditions and drought conditions can be many, many, many times," said Neal Fitzpatrick, a Potomac resident and executive director of the Audubon Naturalist Society. "I don't think citizens buy that line when the river is high. When the river is low, I don't think that is acceptable; it is not credible in my view."
There needs to be much better enforcement ensuring that whatever got in the system doesn't get in there again, said Fitzpatrick.
WSSC monitors water quality up and down the river, said Brown. "Testing is absolutely normal, we always test the raw water."
Pre-treatment capabilities at the treatment plant also would detect any bacteria which could cause concern and would pre-treat the water, said Brown. At that point, WSSC would pre-treat the water and take additional measures necessary to make sure the drinking water is safe to drink.
"I would like there to be more validity to what spokespeople are saying. Data helps someone like me help understand," said Fitzpatrick. "Having some outside analysis to give data is of critical importance. Without that, I'm skeptical."
Brown said if there were a reason to fear the safety of public drinking water, WSSC would issue a boiled-water alert, notifying the public.
"We haven't had to deal with that in the past," said Brown.