State management of the troubled Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant could end in as little as five weeks, an official from the Maryland Department of the Environment said during a community meeting Tuesday night in Essex.
The plant, which is owned and operated by Baltimore City but located in Baltimore County, has complied with its environmental permit for the past seven weeks following months of pollution overages, said Lee Currey, director of MDE’s water and science administration. If the facility stays in compliance for five more weeks, the Maryland Environmental Service — which took over the troubled plant in March at MDE’s behest — would have to leave unless the city asks it to remain, per an agreement reached between the two parties last month.
“I’m not going to say that we don’t have concerns about the city managing the facility,” Currey said during Tuesday’s meeting. “But what we’re going to do is work with the city to make sure that transition occurs as smooth as possible.”
Nearly 200 people attended Tuesday’s meeting hosted by the Back River Restoration Committee, many of them homeowners living along the river who expressed exasperation with the pollution from the plant — and that it could soon return to city control.
“Can the state somehow — one way or another — say: ‘We don’t want 90 days. We’re going to make it six months. We’re going to make it a year. We’re going to make it two years’?” said county resident Joe Cooke, who lives near Todd Point along Back River.
“I don’t know if we can legally do that,” Currey said. “What we can do is work with the city to say, ‘OK, can we keep MES on site?’”
Toward the end of Tuesday’s meeting, a representative from Baltimore’s Department of Public Works revealed they were in attendance, but did not answer questions, causing frustration among the crowd.
In a statement, the department said it plans to “connect with Essex Community leaders soon to discuss the status of the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant.”
It pointed to a recent progress report indicating that it has hired two more technicians for the plant and reached an agreement with National Technology Transfer Inc. to provide more electrical training for staff.
Department spokeswoman Yolanda Winkler said the department is still in discussions about whether it would like MES to remain on-site after 90 days of compliance.
Some, including Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., have suggested changes to the plant’s management, allowing the county to exert more control, given that it pays to have its waste treated there.
MDE ordered the Maryland Environmental Service to take over the city plant’s operation following an inspection that showed serious maintenance problems causing months of excess discharges of nutrients and bacteria into the Back River, which flows into the Chesapeake Bay. The Environmental Service, a government entity that operates smaller wastewater treatment facilities around the state, sent a team to assess the facility and jump-start repairs.
The state has said a similar team could be sent to the city’s other wastewater treatment plant along the Patapsco River, where yearly limits for phosphorous and nitrogen pollution have been bypassed, and monthly violations continued in June. Tuesday night, Currey said the state has prepared a draft agreement for the Maryland Environmental Service to come on-site at Patapsco, and will seek the city’s approval soon.
The city initially balked at the state’s intervention at Back River., challenging it in court. But after negotiations, the city agreed to reimburse the state for its help at the plant. The state agreed that it would leave once the plant had achieved 90 straight days of compliance.
So far, the Maryland Environmental Service has not received reimbursement for its help at the plant, said Charles Glass, its executive director. That tab includes the cost of sending mechanics and operators to the facility, and completing work like rehabilitating primary settling tanks where solid waste is separated out of wastewater, which cost more than $2 million, he said.
Under its agreement with the state, Baltimore has 30 days from when it is billed to issue payment, although it can challenge certain charges.
During his remarks Tuesday, Glass said MES is “demobilizing,” meaning that staffers are beginning to leave, having trained operators employed by the city. He added that the facility is “stabilized, but not resilient.”
“We don’t want to be leaving,” he said, “but we’re not in control of that.”
Throughout Tuesday’s meeting, frustrated residents lambasted city and state officials alike about the facility’s woes. How, they asked, did the plant sink into disrepair?
Currey said the plant was functioning at a high level in 2019, following the installation of costly “enhanced nutrient removal” technology paid for with state funds. An MDE inspection of the facility in 2018 didn’t reveal any lacking maintenance, he said.
But when the state returned for an inspection in 2021, equipment failures were evident. The city has said that the coronavirus pandemic, departures of key staffers and supply chain issues all contributed.
During Tuesday night’s meeting, local property owners shared how the plant’s pollution has changed the way they interact with the waterway in their backyard.
”I can’t do anything on the river. My boat is hanging on the lift,” Essex resident Jason Glanville said. “I can’t even wade out to it to put the plug into it in fear of getting a[n] … infection.”
Some said they’ve continued to see clumpy matter floating in Back River that they worry comes from the plant. MDE scientists previously concluded that some of the material found floating in the river was mats of algae. The release of excess nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus, both found in sewage, can cause excess algae growth in bodies of water, which starves it of oxygen and can kill marine life.
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Other residents expressed concern about individuals seen swimming and kayaking on Back River, or at Hart-Miller Island, located near the river’s mouth.
Baltimore County has issued a public health advisory for the river, and installed signage at Cox’s Point Park across the river from the wastewater treatment plant, warning people to wash off if they came into contact with the water because of high bacteria readings during some sampling efforts, including just before the July Fourth holiday. But no swimming advisories have been issued for the popular Hart-Miller Island.
Dabney Maranto, who lives near the Rocky Point golf course at the mouth of Back River, said she thinks the county should issue robocalls to residents about any problems on the river, informing more people about any high bacteria readings. She also hopes a riverkeeper will be designated for Back River.
Meanwhile, she and her family have avoided contact with the river as much as possible, she said.
”We do go on our Jet Skis,” she said. “We get right on the ladder and jump on. We don’t get in the water. We don’t kayak. We used to go kayaking every morning.”
Residents like Maranto say they’re worried the pollution from the Back River plant is impacting their property values, and it’s discouraging because of the taxes they pay for their waterfront homes.
“We pay top tax dollars because we have that property that has the water view,” she said. “It’s kind of sad.”