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Environment

Baltimore agrees to reimburse state for Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant improvements, drop legal challenge

Baltimore has agreed to reimburse Maryland for its assistance with repairs at the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant and drop its legal challenge of the state’s intervention at the troubled facility.

Both provisions were included in a consent order announced Friday — one day after a damning report from regulators chronicled a “lack of leadership” leading to “years of neglect” at a plant plagued by understaffing and crumbling infrastructure.

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The agreement reached between the city and the state must be approved by the city’s spending board to go into effect. Officials with the Baltimore Department of Public Works said Friday the board would consider the agreement at its June 22 meeting.

It would require the city to allow the Maryland Environmental Service to make repairs at the plant, although the city could challenge any improvements or agreements with subcontractors costing more than $2.25 million. In that scenario, the Maryland secretary of the environment would evaluate the reimbursement. The city can only challenge the expense item if they prove it can be completed for 20% less cost, or would not “reasonably be expected” to improve the plant’s outcomes.

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The Maryland Environmental Service has been working at the plant for more than two months alongside city employees — ever since former Maryland Secretary of the Environment Ben Grumbles ordered the agency to “take charge” of the plant after a series of failed inspections and documented environmental violations, namely the release of excessive nutrients and bacteria into Back River in Dundalk, which was deemed unsafe for human contact in April.

The state is pursuing a “similar agreement” with the city for its other plant — the Patapsco Wastewater Treatment Plant, the Maryland Department of the Environment said in a Friday news release. MDE inspections at that facility have shown continued equipment issues leading to nutrient pollution in the Patapsco River.

By March, the Back River plant had released more than its allowed amount of phosphorous into that estuary for the entire year. By April, it had exceeded its nitrogen limit for the year, too. It comes after the plant exceeded its limits in 2020 and again — by about 50% more — in 2021, according to a recent inspection report.

Those nutrients are detrimental to the health of the bay and its tributaries by stimulating the growth of algae, which strips the water of oxygen required to sustain marine life.

City public works officials said in a statement Friday that the work with MDE and MES “will ensure our vital wastewater system’s integrity, address long-standing critical issues and protect our essential waterways.”

The agreement announced Friday doesn’t preclude the state or other groups from pursuing legal action against the city in pursuit of financial penalties or court orders.

The state still has a case against the city, as does local nonprofit Blue Water Baltimore, whose water quality monitoring efforts kicked off a series of state inspections of the city’s plants last summer. The nonprofit plans to file for an injunction next week that, if approved by a federal judge, would require the city to take certain immediate actions at both plants to address solid waste handling, staffing and public notification about water quality problems, said Angela Haren of the Chesapeake Legal Alliance, which is assisting Blue Water in its case.

Friday’s agreement “solidifies the parameters of the MES takeover,” Haren said, “but it has not addressed the issues at Back River — the long-term issues, the original claims that Blue Water first brought.”

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It also does not address the issues at the Patapsco plant, she said.

Doug Myers, Maryland senior scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said Friday that he was concerned that the consent order did not give Maryland Environmental Service authority to make staffing changes at the plant, given the findings of the agency’s report released Thursday.

“What seems to be missing in this summary of the order is whether MES will have the authority to make staffing or management changes,” Myers wrote in an email. “The MES report went into significant detail about personnel issues and attitudes that either contribute to or exacerbate some of the maintenance and repair problems.”

The report described a “defensive” response from top Baltimore Department of Public Works officials when state staffers arrived at the plant in early April. It also described an understaffed plant with a lacking training program, where some staffers worked with little supervision, and sometimes slept or handled personal affairs on the job.

It also described a facility rife with infrastructure problems and safety issues, including wildlife “taking up residency” in poorly lit plant buildings, frequent sludge leaks and spills, among other hazards, some of which were cited by the state in 2019 but never resolved.

The report described a lack of succession planning both for retiring employees and for aging equipment. There was little to no centralized tracking of work orders or of the life cycle of equipment, meaning repairs were made as things broke rather than proactively.

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The report highlighted that many managers at the plant were relatively new due to high turnover, and hadn’t been trained adequately.

There also was a general “lack of urgency” about addressing the plant’s serious issues and their impact on water quality in Back River, according to the report.


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