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Environment

Baltimore’s two wastewater treatment plants dumped high sewage levels in rivers, inspections found

Baltimore’s two wastewater treatment plants have illegally discharged millions of gallons a day of partially treated sewage into the tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay, according to state environmental inspections.

The amount being discharged each day into the Patapsco and Back rivers was enough to fill a wading pool the size of 295-acre Patterson Park, according to the environmental group Blue Water Baltimore, which discovered and reported the high levels of fecal matter in both rivers to the Maryland Department of Environment.

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In an Aug. 23 letter to the city Department of Public Works, MDE demanded “immediate actions and corrective measures” based on the findings of state inspections conducted in May and June. MDE inspectors found higher than acceptable levels of harmful bacteria, nitrogen and phosphorous emitted from the two plants.

Such problems at the wastewater treatment plants can have a significant impact on the health of the Chesapeake Bay because sewage pollution is one of the largest sources of nutrients that disrupt the estuary’s ecology, alongside fertilizers and animal waste. Fecal matter also can cause people to become sick, endangering nearby swimmers and anglers.

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City officials attributed the problems to significant equipment and staffing issues at the two wastewater treatment plants, one at Wagners Point in South Baltimore and the other in Dundalk.

The two Public Works plants treat sewage from both Baltimore City and County. After it’s treated the wastewater is released into local waterways. Any nitrogen and phosphorus left in the wastewater can fuel algae blooms that cloud bay waters and create “dead zones” where the water contains little or no dissolved oxygen that aquatic life need to breathe.

The problems at the plants compound the sewage infrastructure issues facing Baltimore, which is operating 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.

In MDE’s letter about the wastewater treatment plants, Lee Currey, director of the agency’s Water and Science Administration, told city officials that the state intends to file a formal enforcement action, which could carry a fine of $10,000 per day of violation.

The state said that at the Patapsco plant, a failure to contain the fats, oils and grease that residents dump down their drains indicated “a major treatment design problem” that threatened the integrity of plant systems. At the Back River plant, inspectors found that the excessive pollution escaping the treatment systems was the result of “significant operational and maintenance issues.”

Public Works Director Jason W. Mitchell said in a statement that the city agency has scheduled a meeting with MDE to discuss the violations.

“Our team has developed a strategy to get back into compliance and will be providing a timeline for compliance to MDE next month,” Mitchell said. “The root causes for the violations have been identified by DPW and will be addressed systematically to ensure we achieve 100% compliance.”

Maryland Secretary of the Environment Ben Grumbles called the problems at the plant “an enforcement priority” and said that penalties could result.

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“Based on our inspections over the last several months and also communication with citizens groups, we had reason to believe there were some real deficiencies,” he said. “There will be enforcement taken.”

Grumbles said state regulators plan to meet with city officials “immediately.”

“It’s urgent. We want to hear their explanation as well as their plans for corrective action,” he said.

MDE first inspected the Patapsco plant in May, shortly after staffers from Blue Water Baltimore, a nonprofit focused on water quality, raised red flags about bacteria levels they discovered in the water nearby, said Alice Volpitta, Blue Water’s Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper.

“Why haven’t there been any flags risen up until this point?” Volpitta said. “Why did it take the work of a local nonprofit organization to ring the bell on this?”

Grumbles said the department first got wind of problems through the plants’ discharge reports from March, prompting in-person inspections that began in May.

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When state inspectors arrived at Patapsco that month, staffers there told them an equipment issue in April 2021, in addition to an hourlong power outage on May 4, 2021, contributed to high levels of bacteria flowing from the plant into the Patapsco River.

But the plant also faced problems in 2020, when it exceeded the amounts of nitrogen and phosphorous it was permitted to release into the environment, according to MDE’s inspection report.

MDE inspectors also found “small but widespread” amounts of fats, oils and grease around the plant’s discharge pipe. A 2017 plan mandated a series of facility upgrades to address the problem, but none of the projects have been initiated, according to the plant’s inspection report.

Inspectors also found “insufficient maintenance and operational staff” at the Patapsco plant, the report about the plant said. When asked about the issue, plant manager Neal Jackson cited “a worker shortage due to the pandemic,” according to the report. In some cases, water samples required by the state were mishandled or collected incorrectly, according to the report, contributing to gaps in data.

In June, MDE inspectors visited the Back River plant and discovered “scattered problem[s] with broken or malfunctioning equipment,” according to that report. Those problems meant the plant “consistently” failed to release water with acceptable amounts of bacteria and nutrients into the environment.

Plant manager Betty Jacobs told MDE inspectors that the Back River plant’s main centrifuge began to have problems in January 2021, affecting the plant’s ability to process solid waste, according the inspection report. But one inspector thought it started earlier.

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“My review determined that the effluent violations began in August 2020 well before the centrifuge failed in January 2021,” the inspector wrote in the report. “Therefore, there is evidence that the centrifuge began failing some time in 2020.”

Inspectors also discovered that of the facility’s 76 operators, two had permanent licenses. The rest were working with temporary licenses. Some staffers had failed the test to receive their license, plant managers told inspectors, while others felt there was no incentive to take it at all.

Staffers there also failed to report all of its violations to state regulators, and some of its tabulations were questionable due to contamination in sampling areas. State regulators wrote that the plant requires an updated operations and maintenance manual.

Volpitta said the problems at the plants “single-handedly have the ability to derail” the Total Maximum Daily Load agreement for the Chesapeake Bay, a pact between the states whose waterways reach the bay and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that outlines nutrient reduction goals for the estuary by 2025.

“There needs to be far more oversight for the two largest wastewater treatment plants in the state of Maryland,” Volpitta said. “We really need to get a handle on these local-level problems if we have any hope of achieving larger-scale improvements.”


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