Baltimore will file a court motion Friday seeking a judicial review of the state’s takeover of the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant, which officials consider “unfair and counter-productive,” according to James Bentley, spokesman for Mayor Brandon Scott.
City officials struck back at state regulators in a news release Thursday, saying staffing shortages and supply chain issues are behind the continued maintenance problems at both of its wastewater facilities, the Back River plant in Dundalk and the Patapsco Wastewater Treatment Plant in Curtis Bay.
Baltimore officials said they’d been in communication with the state about the time they’d need to make fixes ever since violations were noted in inspections of both of the city’s wastewater treatment plants last summer after partially treated sewage was found polluting nearby waters.
So when Maryland Secretary of the Environment Ben Grumbles issued an order requiring the plant to come into compliance within 48 hours, officials knew it wouldn’t be possible, the Baltimore Department of Public Works said.
A copy of the city’s court motion was not available Thursday night, and city officials declined to provide further details about it.
The Department of Public Works described its challenges bringing both plants up to code in the news release.
“Unfortunately, the City has been unable to, as yet, adequately compensate for the increasing numbers of seasoned staff retiring, as it competes with peer utilities and private sector employers for staffing,” the statement read. “The departure of much-needed expertise, the lack of adequate and qualified candidates to replace retiring employees, and the national supply chain issues in procuring the needed parts and equipment, which many utilities face, are all contributing factors to the delays in addressing the plants’ performance.”
The city’s Department of Public Works director obtained an emergency procurement order in September to begin addressing staffing shortages and equipment needs, the city’s statement read.
Both the Back River and Patapsco plants already are the subject of lawsuits filed in state court on behalf of the Maryland Department of the Environment in January in federal court by local nonprofit Blue Water Baltimore over pollution violations tracked by the state, including excessive releases of bacteria and nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous, which impair the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries by stimulating algae growth that robs the water of oxygen and kills marine life.
Inspections began at the plants last year after Blue Water Baltimore’s water sampling flagged concerning bacteria and nutrient levels outside the Patapsco plant.
On Sunday, Grumbles directed the Maryland Environmental Service, which runs numerous other smaller water and wastewater treatment plants around the state, to take charge of operations at the Dundalk plant. He wrote that the “decline in the proper maintenance and operation of the Plant risks catastrophic failures.”
In a Wednesday interview with The Baltimore Sun, Grumbles said city officials had indeed been providing biweekly briefings to the state about conditions at the two plants. But when inspectors visited Back River last week, they were “shocked” by the developments. Equipment failures and other issues appeared to have only worsened since the previous inspection in December.
“We’re focused on — not words or assurances that have been made over the last few months in meetings or briefings,” Grumbles said, “we’re focused instead on actions and on the current condition of the facility.”
An inspection report from Back River released last week showed continuing 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. For instance, only half of the necessary primary settling tanks, which are meant to separate out solid waste and fats and oils in the system, were working. Vegetation grew out of tanks open to the outdoors, which state inspectors had ordered be fixed months prior.
The entire episode has raised questions both about the city’s management of the plant, and whether the Maryland Department of the Environment could have stepped in to address the problems sooner.
“There’s so much to do to make sure things don’t get that bad again,” Baltimore City Councilman Mark Conway said. “There’s more to do on the city side. I think there’s more MDE could have done to keep us on track years ago given the condition of the facility.”
Once MDE discovered the issues, it could have acted faster to take action against the plant, said Doug Myers, Maryland senior scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
“Why didn’t the regulatory arm of MDE step in sooner?” Myers said. “Instead of just: ‘We’ll come back and do another inspection in six months and see if you’re still violating.’”
Inspectors plan to revisit the Patapsco plant next week, Grumbles said. The last inspection there, which occurred in January, found the plant’s final product was “an opaque grey color,” indicating that “higher-than-normal” levels of solids remained in the water. It should be clear.
During the inspection, plant officials said the contractor responsible for removing and processing solids from the system was having difficulty keeping up, impacting the discharge from the plant. The contractor reported there were high hydrocarbon concentrations in the sludge, creating a fire hazard, so it couldn’t be processed at the usual rate.
Some of those materials were being stored at a transfer station, where a clogged drain left an inspector concerned that runoff could be headed for storm drains, which run into waterways.
The Back River plant is also the site of the newly completed $430 million Headworks Project, meant to clear a sometimes miles-long sewage backlog in a pipe heading into the plant.
The project added massive tanks that could store excess sewage, particularly when stormy weather inundated what is a leaky, aging sewer system with rainwater. Officials held a ceremonial ribbon-cutting at the plant for the newly completed project in 2021. Meanwhile, problems were brewing in the plant’s sewage treatment process.
“This maintenance issue was kind of swept under the carpet so that everybody could have something to be happy about,” Myers said.
About a month after the ceremony, a Department of the Environment inspector arrived with a list of pollution violations occurring at the plant, dating back to 2020. Inside, he found scattered problems with broken or malfunctioning equipment, some of which he attributed to maintenance problems. As a result, solid waste was clogging the system, contaminating the water discharged into Back River.
The inspector also noted that of the 76 certified operators at the plant, only two had permanent licenses, and the rest were working under temporary licenses.
A Back River official told the inspector that some employees couldn’t pass the required test and others weren’t motivated to try, since there was “no incentive” to have a permanent license. But that training is necessary, the inspector wrote, for “adequate physical inspections, repairs, and preventative maintenance.”
In September, the inspector returned, having received a concerning image of “dark charcoal color discharge” moving through the system.
The amount of solid waste in the water at that point in the process far outpaced levels seen from 2017 through 2020, the inspector wrote.
Inside the plant, he found clogged filters, “unacceptable algae growth” and “unchecked” vegetation growth on treatment equipment, which short-circuited parts of the system.
MDE returned in October. Issues with vegetation growth continued, and plant officials told inspectors that they had a project scheduled to clean it up. Repairs also had been scheduled for the primary settling tanks. Just three out of eleven were functioning.
In December, an inspector highlighted the vegetation again, plus malfunctioning sand filters. Officials told the inspector that fixing the filters was part of a “capital improvement project” and they didn’t have a date scheduled for repairs. The city cited issues with a contractor meant to remove the plant growth on the equipment.
That all led up to the state’s return to the site in March following a fish kill of at least 250 shad on Back River, and reports of dark mats of algae floating in the water. That precipitated the state’s decision to take charge of the plant Sunday.