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Environment

Maryland takes legal action against Baltimore City over pollution from Back River, Patapsco sewage treatment plants

Maryland is suing Baltimore in state court and issued a warning it also could join a federal lawsuit against the city over polluting discharges from the Back River and Patapsco wastewater treatment plants that had been ongoing for a year before they came to light in August.

The legal action, taken on behalf of the Maryland Department of the Environment in Baltimore City Circuit Court, seeks fines of up to $10,000 per day of violations and an injunction to stop the pollution. Officials said a lawsuit in U.S. District Court could follow.

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The moves come as Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration has faced criticism for going too easy on polluters and underinvesting in environmental enforcement. The concerns were the subject of a state Senate hearing Tuesday and an earlier EPA report that raised concern about drinking water system inspections.

State environment officials have said they have been in talks with the city Department of Public Works for months about solutions to stop the excessive pollution.

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Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles said Friday’s action was needed to “accelerate” the city’s efforts to stop the violations and to ensure the state and region do not fall back in efforts to restore the health of the Chesapeake Bay by 2025.

Bay advocates say the pollution is significant enough to derail decades of progress to restore the estuary that is so central to the state’s culture and economy.

The city’s law department said in a statement late Friday that it’s aware of the suit filed by the state. It said the city is looking into the allegations and seeking an amicable resolution with the state.

The lawsuit cites violations of permits that dictate the types and amounts of discharges wastewater treatment plants can make into open bodies of water. The violations include exceeding sewage discharge limits, failing to report sampling results and operating without adequate staff or maintenance.

The plants are owned and operated by Baltimore City and process wastewater from toilets and drainpipes across the city and suburban Baltimore County. The amount of partially treated sewage the plants released for months on end was enough to fill a wading pool the size of 295-acre Patterson Park every day, according to water quality advocacy group Blue Water Baltimore.

The group, which filed its own notice of intent to file a federal lawsuit against the city under the Clean Water Act in December, was alerted to the problems when its work to routinely collect and test water samples from dozens of sites around Baltimore indicated unsafe levels of fecal bacteria around the Patapsco plant.

Alice Volpitta, who serves as the Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper within Blue Water, called the state’s legal action good news and a necessary step to ensure problems at the sewage plants are fixed. She said the move was not a surprise and that she expects it will lead to a consent decree, or a court-enforced plan for how to address the violations at the plants.

“I don’t think this is an indication that anything is breaking down or anyone is being uncooperative,” Volpitta said.

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But another vocal environmental group criticized the state for not doing more to prevent the sewage pollution from happening in the first place.

Grumbles has said the state was aware of concerning discharges at the plants well before they became public in August, but his department has faced questions about why they have continued for so long, and why hazards posed to the public and to the bay were not made public until Blue Water Baltimore revealed the problems.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation called on the state environment agency to “accept responsibility for ... past failures to adequately inspect and enforce violations.”

“We hope this marks the beginning of a more active approach from MDE,” said Josh Kurtz, the group’s Maryland executive director, in a statement.

Del. Regina T. Boyce said that while she would not suggest Baltimore should not be held accountable, she found it frustrating to see the state suing the city when there are likely many other violations, potentially just as egregious, escaping similar scrutiny across the state.

Workforce shortages, plus the COVID-19 pandemic, meant state environmental officials inspected 32,000 sites in fiscal year 2020, down from 55,000 in fiscal 2019 and 68,000 in fiscal 2018.

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“I don’t want to point fingers and say, ‘What about them?’ But it’s a departmental problem,” the Baltimore Democrat said. “Do they plan to sue other repeat offenders?”


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