A Curtis Bay manganese processing plant that is the largest industrial polluter of Maryland waterways has, for the past two years, dumped 12 times more nitrogen into a Patapsco River tributary than its permit allows, state officials acknowledged Monday.
Erachem Comilog Inc. discharged wastewater containing more than 350,000 pounds of nitrogen in 2014 and 2015, according to public documents gathered by the Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper in a yearlong investigation.
Starting in 2013, Erachem's state permit limited it to releasing 13,800 pounds of nitrogen annually from an outflow into Arundel Cove.
Erachem manufactures substances used in electronics and agricultural chemicals. Environmental advocates released data about the firm Monday in a first step toward suing the company under the federal Clean Water Act.
David Flores, the harbor waterkeeper, said he hopes the action prompts environmental regulators to intervene.
"That's our goal, to have the pollution abated by any means," Flores said.
Erachem officials said in a statement they were "surprised" to hear that the groups plan to sue, because the company has been working with the Maryland Department of the Environment to comply with its permit. The plant entered an agreement with MDE in 2013 that temporarily doubled the nitrogen limit and allowed Erachem to avoid penalties if it met certain milestones.
"Erachem Comilog Inc. has invested a significant amount of capital and has been working diligently at the direction of MDE to meet the terms and schedule provided for by the Consent Agreement," officials said.
MDE officials said they have been working for years to reduce nitrogen pollution released by Erachem. The department fined Erachem $10,200 for exceeding pollution limits in 2013, and officials expect to assess further penalties for 2014 and 2015.
They said in a statement that Erachem indicated it has completed improvements to its water treatment system that aim to reduce the flow of nitrogen in its wastewater.
"We will verify that this has been done and continue to review the facility's performance to ensure that it improves and meets required limits," they said.
Nitrogen pollution is among the biggest detriments to the Chesapeake Bay's health. It causes algae blooms that can block sunlight from reaching underwater plants. Blooms can also strip waters of oxygen as they die and decompose, and can contain bacteria harmful to humans, including cyanobacteria and Vibrio, which can cause serious infections.
The nitrogen limit state regulators placed on Erachem was stringent by design. MDE and the federal Environmental Protection Agency are guiding an effort to drastically reduce the amount of pollution flowing into the Chesapeake Bay by 2025.
The goal set for Erachem was based on a 90 percent reduction of its historical output of nitrogen, according to correspondence between the company and MDE obtained by Blue Water Baltimore, a nonprofit that runs the harbor waterkeeper program, and the Environmental Integrity Project, a Washington-based advocacy group.
At Erachem's local facility, just south of the Baltimore City line in Anne Arundel County, the company produces chemicals derived from manganese and used in electronics and agriculture. Manganese is a chemical element found in combination with various minerals in nature.
In 2014, the plant released 716,000 pounds of nitrate compounds, plus 59,000 pounds of manganese compounds, into the environment, according to the EPA.
The plant has released at least 450,000 pounds of nitrate compounds each year since at least 2005, including 1.1 million pounds in 2011, according to EPA. The agency said those figures made the Erachem plant the largest industrial source of water pollution in the state.
The figures include all means of pollution from the facility, such as stormwater runoff, while the permit that places limits on nitrogen discharges applies specifically to a single wastewater outfall flowing into Arundel Cove, leading to Curtis Creek, Curtis Bay, the Patapsco River and, ultimately, the Chesapeake Bay.
Environmental advocates argue that Erachem should not be allowed to so drasatically exceed pollution limits when other operations have spent significantly to meet the demands of a 2010 EPA directive.
"That makes this so much more unfair," Flores said.
Under the Clean Water Act, the environmental advocates can sue Erachem 60 days after Monday's notice. As a result of a lawsuit, Erachem could face an injunction to stop any production that causes it to violate the nitrogen discharge limit, as well as fines.