Report: Patapsco wastewater plant far exceeding its pollution limit

Baltimore’s Patapsco Wastewater Treatment Plant released four times the amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus permitted in 2016, according to a new report by an environmental advocacy group.

The plant, Maryland’s second-largest, was among 21 wastewater plants across the Chesapeake Bay watershed that exceeded their pollution limits, according to the report by the Environmental Integrity Project, which based its findings on federal and state records.

Maryland has spent $1.25 billion since 2004 to upgrade treatment plants and reduce pollution. But with such improvements not expected to be complete at the Patapsco plant until next summer, the Environmental Integrity Project is calling on the state to hold the city accountable for making the change.

“If that happens, great, but we have to wait and see if that’s true,” said Tom Pelton, a spokesman for the environmental group, of the improvements at Patapsco. “We have to keep a close eye on the city, and we hope the Maryland Department of the Environment will keep a close eye on the city, too.”

Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles said the state is committed to seeing the improvement plan through. The department pointed to the progress the state has made: Fifty-four of 67 targeted facilities have been updated and another 12 are expected to be completed in the next three years. Nitrogen pollution has been reduced by 6.3 million pounds and phosphorus pollution has declined by half a million pounds since the taxpayer-supported Bay Restoration Fund, which pays for the bulk of improvements, was established in 2004, the state said.

The Bay Restoration Fund money for the sewage plant upgrades comes from a $60 fee on residents that is known as the “flush tax.”

“Our commitment to the Chesapeake Bay is stronger than ever and so is our willingness to work with communities as technical, engineering and financial challenges arise,” Grumbles said in a statement. “We’ll continue to push hard for getting results, meeting deadlines and enforcing compliance.”

Reducing the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus released from sewage and wastewater treatment plants has been a focus of efforts to clean up the Chesapeake waterway because of the damaging effect the nutrients have on plants and animals that live in the bay. The nutrients cause growth of excessive amounts of algae, which suck oxygen from the water when they die.

Baltimore’s Board of Estimates, and later a federal judge, approved a $1.6 billion plan this year to overhaul the city’s sewer system and stop wastewater from leaking into the harbor by 2030.

But in 2016, plants still awaiting upgrades continued to dump millions more pounds of the nutrients into the waterway than permitted.

The Patapsco plant released 3.7 million pounds of nitrogen in 2016, four times its permitted amount. In the first six months of 2017, the plant released 2.3 million pounds of nitrogen, more than twice its annual permitted amount.

Plants in Frederick and Salisbury also exceeded their limits.

Baltimore’s Back River plant released 3.6 million pounds of nitrogen, 29 percent more than its permitted limit.

An upgrade at that plant was completed in September, and it is now operating within its limits, said Jeffrey Raymond, a spokesman for Baltimore City Department of Public Works

“We’re very happy to say we’re already meeting those enhanced regulations,” Raymond said of the Back River plant. “The one at Patapsco is taking longer than we would have liked.”

The Patapsco plant’s upgrade was supposed to be completed three years ago. Raymond said the improvements are now on track to be finished in the next eight to 12 months.

sarah.gantz@baltsun.com

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