Maryland and Baltimore City officials are holding “deliberative conversations” about whether state staffers can remain at the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant beyond the expiration of an agreement forged earlier this year, according to a spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment.
The sewage treatment plant in eastern Baltimore County seemingly complied with limits for how much pollutants it can release under its state discharge permit in June, July and August, said Jay Apperson, spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment, which would trigger the end of the state’s involvement under a consent agreement negotiated with the city. But that is still being reviewed, and the two parties are discussing continuing the arrangement.
”These are deliberative conversations and at this time the current Consent Order remains in place,” Apperson wrote in an email.
Meanwhile recent inspection reports from the facility show continued maintenance and staffing struggles, though the water coming from the plant is meeting standards.
The Maryland Environmental Service took charge of the plant in late March at the order of then-Secretary of the Environment Ben Grumbles after state inspectors documented continuing problems resulting in pollution of the Back River.
While the city initially challenged the takeover in court, it negotiated the consent agreement with the state in June that clarified the scope and duration of the state’s involvement at the plant. The state agreed it would leave the troubled facility after it complied with the limits outlined in its environmental permit for three straight months. In other words, the water discharged from the plant would have to meet certain standards for how much nitrogen, phosphorus and other pollutants it contained.
Now, state environmental officials are waiting on a report from the city, due Wednesday, that would confirm the plant also met annual and seasonal limits for the last several months, calculated on a pro rata basis, Apperson said.
The plant doesn’t need to be in compliance with everything in its permit for the state to leave. The permit, for example, also includes non-numeric standards about how the plant should be run, and the plant was in violation of some of those requirements when MDE inspectors last visited in August.
Angela Haren, a senior attorney at the Chesapeake Legal Alliance, who represents the nonprofit Blue Water Baltimore in its lawsuit against the city over the plants, called those numeric conditions on pollutant discharge a “narrow lens.” She argues that other permit violations at the plant warrant continued involvement from the state.
“What the inspection reports are showing us is that there continue to be significant problems at both Patapsco and Back River, and we are very concerned about the prospect of MES leaving,” she said.
Through the agreement, the city has paid the Maryland Environmental Service about $2 million for its work so far, said Sharon Merkel, an MES spokeswoman.
In a statement, Yolanda Winkler, a spokeswoman for Baltimore City Department of Public Works, wouldn’t say whether the city would back an extension, or for how long it would last, but said that seven staffers from the state are still working at Back River, fewer than earlier this year.
“The collaboration between the Baltimore City Department of Public Works (DPW) the Maryland Department of Environment (MDE) and the Maryland Environmental Service (MES) has produced improved results for the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant,” she said in a statement.
But according to a court motion filed this month by lawyers representing the city, the two parties are “negotiating an extension to the consent order to allow the ongoing support of the Maryland Environmental Service (”MES”) at the plant through the end of the year.”
The city recently extended 14 employment offers for new hires at the Back River plant and two for Patapsco, wrote Baltimore wastewater bureau chief Yosef Kebede in his court declaration, dated Sept. 6.
“While the City is still below desirable staffing levels, that is the norm in the industry during these unprecedented worker shortages,” Kebede wrote.
Those filings came in response to the nonprofit Blue Water Baltimore’s federal lawsuit against the city over its management of the Back River and Patapsco Wastewater Treatment Plants, both of which have been flagged by MDE for serious maintenance problems resulting in damaging pollution. The state has not taken over the Patapsco plant, though environmental advocates have pushed for such an arrangement, as that plant remains out of compliance with its pollution limits.
Blue Water Baltimore, which set off inspections at both plants in 2021 after its water quality monitoring efforts caught high bacteria levels in the Back and Patapsco rivers, hopes a judge will impose enforceable requirements for repairs at both plants. It’s also calling for public signage along the two rivers warning of potentially high bacteria levels.
During an initial hearing about the matter, U.S. District Court Judge Lydia Kay Griggsby found that attorneys representing Blue Water Baltimore from the Chesapeake Legal Alliance didn’t provide enough evidence to show that there would be “irreparable harm” if the court did not step in. She allowed them to prepare an additional brief in response. A new hearing to discuss Blue Water’s request has been scheduled for Oct. 11.
According to the state’s last inspection report from Back River, dated August 16, even though the plant’s discharge water has improved in quality, problems remain with the machinery inside the facility.
For instance — although more of the key primary settling tanks were online — filters elsewhere in the plant were clogged and not being washed out frequently enough, the inspector noted.
Dan Latova, a plant representative, blamed the problems on staffing issues, and told the inspector that “they have not been able to get qualified staff” because the staffers are chosen by the city’s human resources department, rather than plant management, and often do not have adequate prior experience.
”He further stated that there are not sufficient staff to be able to provide training hours needed to get the applicants to a point where they can function on their own,” the inspection report reads.
Desiree Greaver, project manager for the Back River Restoration Committee — a nonprofit that has been among the loudest voices calling for improvements at the plant — said she worries that if MES leaves the facility, mechanical issues will mount once more, and the plant could resume discharging excess pollutants into Back River. It was a worry echoed by numerous community members living along the river during a tense meeting about the plant in July, hosted by the Restoration Committee.
Greaver said she was invited to visit the plant for the first time last Wednesday, alongside members of the state Senate’s Budget and Taxation Committee, and was impressed by how far it has come since inspection reports earlier this year and last year showed severe issues, such as vegetation growing in sewage settling tanks, and discolored water going into the river from the plant.
On Wednesday, she saw workers repairing settling tanks, and observed that the water cascading toward the river was clear.
She’s hopeful that visits like last week’s will allow her organization to serve as a bridge between plant officials and the community, with the goal of restoring public trust in the facility.
“The community doesn’t trust the city, the state, the county. Nobody trusts them. They haven’t earned it,” she said. “It’s going to take a lot of work to repair that and to get us all on the same team again.”
Her group also hopes the General Assembly could take up the issue of establishing a regional authority to manage the city’s wastewater plants, so that other entities besides Baltimore City are involved in the plant’s operations, she said.
It’s a possible outcome that’s been floated by officials, including Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr.
In the meantime, groups like the Restoration Committee are engaged in a “waiting game,” Greaver said, eager to see whether the city continues footing the bill for extra employees from the state.