Maryland’s Secretary of the Environment Ben Grumbles on Sunday directed the state to take charge of operations at Baltimore City’s troubled Back River Wastewater Treatment plant in Dundalk — the largest such facility in the state.
The extraordinary step came after the Maryland Department of the Environment “determined that the decline in the proper maintenance and operation of the Plant risks catastrophic failures,” according to Grumbles’ directive.
An inspection report released last week showed widespread maintenance issues at the city-run facility, all preventing it from adequately treating the sewage flowing in from both the city and Baltimore County. Environmental regulators believe that has resulted in massive discharges of partially treated sewage into the Back River, complete with nutrients and dangerous bacteria that harm the Chesapeake Bay.
MDE issued an order Thursday demanding the plant come into compliance with environmental laws within two days. But an inspection of the site Saturday revealed it hadn’t made the needed improvements.
Now, Grumbles has directed the Maryland Environmental Service to take over the treatment plant immediately. In a statement, Maryland Department of the Environment spokesman Jay Apperson said the action is a tool in state law “reserved for extremely rare situations,” adding that officials there aren’t aware of any prior examples of its use.
Under Grumbles’ directive, MES will be responsible for working with Baltimore to address the maintenance problems to ensure that the city has adequate staff on board to make the corrections and to train more workers to temporarily supplement existing staff if needed.
Baltimore would foot the bill for all costs incurred by MES as it works to bring the plant into working order.
The Environmental Service also will have to complete a “comprehensive evaluation and assessment” of Back River’s operation, maintenance, staffing and equipment by June 6.
In a joint statement, the Baltimore City Department of Public Works and the mayor’s office said they have been asking for support from MES “for the last few months.”
“We remain disappointed with MDE’s course of action, given the collaborative efforts to improve performance over several months at Back River and Patapsco Wastewater Treatment Plants and the number of years this issue has been a problem,” city spokesman James E. Bentley II said in a statement. “We welcome MDE and MES’s collaboration to bring these facilities into compliance, as we have been reaching out to MES for support for the last few months.”
Monday morning, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott issued a statement, saying the city is committed to bringing both of its wastewater treatment plants into compliance with environmental laws.
“The Back River and Patapsco Wastewater Treatment Plants have had issues that long predate my administration,” Scott said. “This will not be an overnight fix but we must work collaboratively and combine our resources in order to ensure clean and healthy communities not just for our residents, but also for the wildlife that calls the Chesapeake Bay home.”
Alice Volpitta, Blue Water Baltimore’s Baltimore Harbor waterkeeper, called the MDE move a “huge step forward.”
“I personally have been working on sewage issues in Baltimore for the past eight years — ever since I’ve been with Blue Water,” she said Sunday. “This is the first time that I have felt like we’re seeing meaningful, tangible progress towards clean water on this specific issue.”
The plant has been facing regulatory scrutiny, alongside Baltimore’s other wastewater treatment facility, since last summer, after Blue Water Baltimore detected elevated bacteria levels near both Back River and its city-based counterpart, Patapsco Wastewater Treatment Plant in Wagner’s Point.
State inspectors visited the facilities and documented significant issues that had resulted in the release of millions of gallons a day of partially treated sewage over a period of months.
At the time, the city said it would come up with a plan to address the plants’ violations.
By late January, both the state of Maryland and Blue Water Baltimore had sued Baltimore over the issues at its treatment plants.
But at least at Back River, the follow-up inspection last week revealed that the problems were only getting worse.
The inspection came after boaters discovered hundreds of dead fish floating in the waters of the Back River near the plant, alongside mats of algae that — to some — looked worryingly like sewage.
When excessive nutrients, such as those in partially treated sewage, are released into a body of water, they stimulate the growth of algae. In large quantities, algae blooms can block sunlight from marine environments, and as they die, they are decomposed by bacteria — a process that strips the surrounding water of dissolved oxygen, essentially suffocating fish, crabs and other creatures in so-called “dead zones.”
Inside the plant, a state inspector documented widespread maintenance issues. He found equipment clogged by sewage buildups and covered in vegetation and algae. Employees told him that only two of 11 settlement tanks — meant to separate out solid waste from liquid — were functioning. So, solid waste was gumming up the works at various points later in the treatment process.
Volpitta cautioned Sunday that the state’s takeover of the plant is a temporary step. The state, along with interested groups like Blue Water, still needs to come up with a long-term plan that would put Baltimore’s wastewater treatment plants back on track. That could come in the form of a legally binding consent decree.
Baltimore is already under a federal consent decree to upgrade its aging wastewater system to stop sewage overflows by 2030. The city and the county are spending about $1.6 billion for the upgrades.
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In the meantime, though, the MES takeover could funnel additional staff and resources to the embattled plant, said Angela Haren, senior attorney at the Chesapeake Legal Alliance, which is representing Blue Water Baltimore in its case.
“One thing that is very clear is that there has not been enough staff,” Haren said. “So the more qualified people who understand how wastewater treatment plants operate that we’re able to get on site, the better.”
Desiree Greaver, a Rosedale resident who is project manager with the Back River Restoration Committee, a group that works to clean up the river, said she was “relieved” and “elated” to hear MES will be stepping in to manage the plant.
”It has long since been plagued as gross and the poop river, and there is so much more potential for it,” she said. “With the proper agency in there running in it and doing proper maintenance and doing simple things, the river can be so much healthier.”
She called it a “huge step” for MES to take control, but she also questioned how it got so bad in the first place.
”This should have been at the top of the priority list,” she said. “There should have been more audits and inspections.”
Baltimore Sun reporter McKenna Oxenden contributed to this article.