Back River plant makes progress in cleaning up its act, Schmoke says


The huge Back River Waste Water Treatment Plant, disgraced last year by its failure to dispose of tens of thousands of tons of smelly sludge, has finally cleaned up its act, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said yesterday -- though not everyone was convinced.

Public works officials gave the mayor a progress report at the plant yesterday on efforts to make the sprawling 600-acre facility a better neighbor. Neighbors themselves, however, were not in evidence at the event, which was attended by hundreds of plant employees.

The plant processes 180 million gallons of sewage a day from 1.2 million metropolitan residents, and produces 600 tons of sludge daily, said Gus Papadakis, an operations engineer at the plant.

Department of Public Works Director George G. Balog told Mr. Schmoke that at this time last year, the plant was at a low point:

*Residents complained about the smell wafting from the waste more than 130 times in September 1989.

*The 84,000 tons of sludge that filled two lagoons and three storage tanks had no place to go. Even when a hauler was found in November, a train carrying the waste was refused at dumps all over the country and given the embarrassing moniker, "the poo-poo choo-choo."

"We were under fire, and it wasn't even our sludge anymore," said one employee as he listened to Mr. Balog. "It was a rough year."

But the situation has changed. Prodded by the state, the city embarked on an intensive sludge-hauling program over the past year that removed more than 173,000 tons of sludge and sent it away for recycling or composting.

Robert T. Mohr, the public works division chief who runs the plant, said that by next month most of the plant's sludge would be placed in enclosed, odorproof silos. A new rapid sludge loader will be able to load a 75-ton truck in five minutes, Mr. Mohr said.

The results were clearly visible yesterday. Sludge that once overflowed from two large lagoons and filled a number of storage tanks had been reduced to 3,000 gooey tons in the corner of one of the lagoons.

The placement of new air-purifying scrubbers throughout the plant, and the elimination of the excess sludge has reduced odor complaints, Mr. Mohr said. So far this month, there have been only eight complaints.

But a few blocks away from the plant, two area residents were divided on how well the plant was doing.

"In my opinion, things are improving," said Albert Kuhar Jr., 54, who has lived in nearby Wells-McComas for 12 years. "When I first moved here, water quality was terrible -- there was always scum on top." Now he can catch catfish and perch in the river.

But neighbor Guido Guarnaccia, the chairman of the neighborhood association's environmental committee, said, "If they're doing so well, why didn't they invite the community? The situation is not improving, and I've lived here for 21 years. The smell is bloody bad."

But officials say they'll spend some $66 million over the next 22 months on construction projects to improve the smell and the quality of the treated water that flows into Back River.

Projects include an advanced waste treatment filtration facility, plants to remove more nitrogen and chlorine from the water, and sand filters that will leave the water 95 percent free of suspended solids, Mr. Papadakis said.

Mayor Schmoke, whose last two visits to the plant were grim affairs to urge workers to remove sludge and combat the odors, said, "We've made significant progress not only in cleaning up the water, but dealing with the sludge."

But, he added, "It's a constant battle each day."

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