In the two months since Maryland filed suit against Baltimore City over sewage treatment failures at its two wastewater plants, problems have worsened at the Back River site — prompting state environmental officials to issue an order demanding the facility be brought into compliance within 48 hours.
“If the conditions of my order are not met, I will not hesitate to take further appropriate actions,” Maryland Secretary of the Environment Ben Grumbles said in a statement Thursday.
The city-run Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant in Dundalk, which is the largest such facility in the state, is supposed to discharge up to 180 million gallons a day of treated wastewater into Back River. But when problems arise, and sewage is only partially treated, the water flowing into the river is contaminated with harmful bacteria and nutrients.
Excess amounts of those very nutrients, such as phosphorous and nitrogen, have imperiled efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay for decades, stimulating the growth of damaging algae blooms, contributing to the formation of “dead zones” and potentially sickening those who come in contact with contaminated water.
A Maryland Department of the Environment inspector who visited the facility this week documented numerous maintenance issues at the site, including “unacceptable” algae and other vegetation growth on various outdoor equipment meant to treat sewage, clogged filters and inoperable storage tanks.
“The decline in the proper maintenance and operation of the Plant risks catastrophic failures at the Plant that may result in environmental harm as well as adverse public health and comfort effects,” Grumbles wrote in his order.
The scathing inspection report released Thursday shocked Doug Myers, the Maryland senior scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. It was the worst inspection report he’s seen in all of his nine years at the foundation, he said. It made him wonder how the state did not issue an order demanding fixes sooner.
“It doesn’t look like anybody works there,” he said. “It’s just such backlogged maintenance. And it’s not just at one portion of the plant. It’s throughout the entire treatment process.”
When the problems at both of the city’s wastewater treatment plants came to light last summer, experts worried that the releases of partially untreated sewage could be derailing the bay cleanup campaign, which has a 2025 deadline attached. They said Thursday’s news was another twist of the knife.
“We have been assured by Baltimore City up to this point that conditions are improving at the treatment plants,” said Alice Volpitta, Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper for advocacy group Blue Water Baltimore. “Now, we find out through this new inspection report that not only are things not getting better — they’re actually getting worse.”
Blue Water Baltimore filed suit against the city in December over the pollutants flowing from the two treatment plants, and has been in talks with the state and the city to develop a consent decree — a legally binding agreement that would bring the two plants into compliance, Volpitta said.
“The City is disappointed to learn of MDE’s order today, given the collaborative efforts to improve performance over the past several months. However, once the order is served, the City will respond accordingly,” the city’s Department of Public Works said in a statement.
On Tuesday, an inspector found that just two out of 11 settling tanks for sewage were operating at the Back River plant, and one of those required maintenance. Staff members at the facility said they’d need four of those tanks functioning in order to adequately handle the sewage coming into the facility.
Those tanks are meant to separate out the solids in wastewater, so that the liquid can be treated to remove nutrients and bacteria. Not having enough functioning tanks means solids will spill into the next steps of the process, clogging equipment and causing a domino effect.
At various places throughout the facility, according to the inspection report, scum had built up, obstructing equipment. The nutrients in the water also stimulated the growth of reed grasses and other vegetation within collection pools.
“The pictures show — it’s like a wetland,” Volpitta said.
While inspecting filters in the plant, the inspector “noticed a strong odor of hydrogen sulfide gas,” a corrosive gas that can cause human health problems, according to the report.
The inspector also noticed visible scum in the final product released by the facility into the Back River.
“It should be as clear as drinking water,” Myers said.
Local boater Raymond Vrablic III, who grew up on the waters of Back River, said the waterway hasn’t appeared healthy in his lifetime. But lately, it might be sinking to a new low.
While out on his boat near the plant Friday evening, Vrabic, who’s known among friends as “Rockfish Ray,” saw dead fish peppering the waterway — at least one fish every 20 feet.
“There were yellow perch, carp and shad dead — floating on the surface of the water,” he said. “And there were — it looked like — turds, tampon applicators, people’s bowel movements.”
At least 250 gizzard shad were found dead, Maryland Department of the Environment spokesman Jay Apperson said in an email.
“The cause is listed as unknown, however the hypothesis is that the fish kill occurred when a school of gizzard shad became trapped and disoriented in a body of hypoxic or anoxic water that migrated into the shallows,” he said.
Apperson said inspectors determined there was also “floating mats of filamentous algae,” in Back River.
When excess nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous fill a body of water, and algae growth is stimulated, oxygen is depleted, creating perilous conditions for marine life known as dead zones.
It was all a sad sight for Vrablic, who fishes in the bay’s waters 52 weeks a year. His 7-year-old son loves to set out from Cox’s Point aboard their boat and cast his line, but they only use the fish they catch for bait, because of their safety fears, Vrablic said. That’s not to mention the potential dangers for recreational swimmers associated with the plant’s discharges of partially treated sewage, Vrablic said.
“When that water goes down the river, there are bars down there that my son plays in the water,” he said. “At the mouth of Back River, there’s Hart-Miller Island, where thousands of people are swimming with their kids.”
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Desiree Greaver visits the waters alongside the wastewater plant every Thursday to collect samples for Blue Water Baltimore. But after seeing video of dark and bubbling water near the plant, Greaver went out Tuesday to see for herself. What she found, she said, was like “nothing I’ve ever seen before.”
”It was almost like a volcano under the water, but a volcano of what looked like feces,” said Greaver, a Rosedale resident who is project manager with the Back River Restoration Committee, a group that works to clean up the river.
The water appeared black and thick, with vigorous bubbles rising from a pipe that flows out of the plant, she said. Though the discharge looked like a sewage overflow, tests on the samples showed bacteria levels were in a safe range.
“OK, this is algae. This is not sewage,” Volpitta said. “However, why were those big mats of algae laying at the bottom of the river? It’s because this facility has been discharging excessive amounts of nutrients into the waterway for more than a year.”
Greaver said she hopes the state’s actions Thursday bring attention to the river and help make it cleaner.
”It’s frustrating to know the plant is continuing to operate in disrepair while we’re working so hard to get the river the way it once was,” she said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Scott Dance contributed to this article.