Environmental groups call for oversight of Baltimore’s other wastewater treatment plant as problems continue

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Environmental groups are calling for third-party oversight at Baltimore’s Patapsco Wastewater Treatment Plant after an inspection conducted last week found continuing equipment problems resulting in high levels of bacteria and nutrients released into the river.

It comes a few weeks after the Maryland Environmental Service took charge of Baltimore’s other wastewater facility, located along the shores of Back River in Dundalk, citing declining conditions after months of failed inspections.


“Blue Water Baltimore is advocating for third-party oversight of the facility in the same way that we have at Back River right now,” said Alice Volpitta, the organization’s Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper. “Whether that’s MES or another entity, it’s clear to me that Baltimore City is not capable of bringing this facility back into compliance or properly operating it at this time, and they need help.”

In response to questions about whether the state planned to initiate a similar takeover at the Patapsco plant, Maryland Secretary of the Environment Ben Grumbles wrote: “We are in discussions with the City and MES about immediate fixes to the unacceptable conditions at Patapsco.”


Since the takeover, the Maryland Environmental Service has placed a dozen extra operators at Back River, which had struggled with understaffing and maintenance issues, according to Maryland Department of the Environment spokesman Jay Apperson. MES staffers are overseeing and assisting with city repair efforts, and the training manager from MES has been brought in to help more Baltimore City workers pass licensing exams, Apperson said.

But the city has filed a legal challenge of the state’s takeover at Back River, arguing it was politically motivated and that some of the state’s efforts would be duplicative. Under state law, the city would be responsible for reimbursing the state for its actions at the plant.

“Our interest is in water quality. I don’t care whose feelings get hurt,” said Doug Myers, Maryland senior scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “From the water quality standpoint, [Patapsco] is in as much need of a takeover as Back River is.”

Both plants are already facing lawsuits from the state and from Blue Water Baltimore over repeated violations of their environmental permits. Officials have said that discussions are underway to establish a legally binding consent decree for the city-run facilities, which also handle waste from Baltimore County.

Previously, Blue Water Baltimore had agreed to a stay in its federal suit while settlement negotiations were underway in the state case. But Wednesday afternoon, the group filed a request in U.S. District Court for Maryland to restart the proceedings.

“At this point, we’re not seeing the progress that we need to see to assure us that anything is going to change,” Volpitta said.

Blue Water Baltimore is an intervenor in the state’s lawsuit against the city, and remains involved in the settlement talks, she said.

“By proceeding with our federal case, we have the ability to go through the discovery process and potentially to depose former DPW employees to really get a handle on what needs to happen at these facilities to bring them fully back into compliance,” Volpitta said.


In a court filing, the city argued that the proceedings should remain on pause.

“Leaving the stay in place for no more than another six months will avoid the cost to the City of litigating the same set of facts simultaneously in both State and federal courts, preserve judicial resources, avoid piecemeal litigation, and avoid the risk of conflicting State and federal remedies,” the city’s filing stated.

Baltimore City’s Department of Public Works declined to comment further on the recent inspection at the Patapsco plant, or about the court filing from Blue Water Baltimore.

Meanwhile, when a Maryland Department of the Environment inspector visited the Patapsco plant last week, the water flowing from the plant into the Patapsco River was “an opaque dark grey with visible particulates.”

The facility’s inability to adequately separate solid waste from liquid, a necessary part of the sewage treatment process, was becoming “increasingly problematic,” the inspector wrote.

“This condition is not acceptable, and measures must be taken to correct the problem of high solids in the final effluent and throughout the treatment system,” he wrote, ordering the city to submit a report in 30 days describing a permanent solution.


For Myers, the most concerning part of the inspection report, dated April 6, was an image of scum floating in the chlorination area. One of the final steps in the wastewater treatment process, chlorination is meant to disinfect the water before it heads to the river.

“[The scum] means that the chlorination probably isn’t working very well, which means they’re going to be passing a lot of bacteria out of the effluent,” Myers said.

In fact, the inspector noted that the plant exceeded a limit for fecal bacteria in January by nearly double.

The inspector also noted that the monthly average amount of suspended solid particles in the plant’s final product had increased nearly threefold between late December and late February, exceeding the plant’s limits.

In high concentrations, these solids can clog the gills of fish swimming in the river, and lower dissolved oxygen levels in the water, harming marine life. The plant also exceeded its limit for nutrients, which can imperil the health of waterways by stimulating algae growth, also starving the ecosystem of needed oxygen.

Both of Baltimore’s facilities have faced issues handling solid waste during the treatment process. At Patapsco, one of the problems has been tied to difficulties processing the sludge removed from the plant. High hydrocarbon levels in the sludge have raised fire hazard concerns, and forced the city’s contractor to process it more slowly — without the use of an air dryer — for more than six months. That has resulted in a backup within the facility.


City officials said they were negotiating with the contractor, Synagro Inc., to try to remove the sludge from the process earlier so it wouldn’t contain hydrocarbons.

At the time of last week’s inspection, piles of sewage sludge were being stored at a transfer facility, encircled by sandbags. But some of the sludge had breached the sandbags, spilling close to the road. Storm drains were covered with a filter cloth and topped with gravel, but the inspector wrote that “this will not prevent pathogenic bacteria from untreated sewage sludge entering the waters of the State.”

Within the facility, located in Wagner’s Point along the Patapsco, equipment issues were common. One building had all six of its grit chambers clogged with rags and debris, according to the state’s inspection report. Efforts to clear the basins were underway as of last week, but the problems were spilling over into other parts of the facility, where workers had to use nets to manually remove fats, oils and greases overwhelming a series of tanks. But some of those materials were deposited on walkways rather than in the trash, according to the report, meaning they could get back into the system.

Volpitta said the plant’s woes are troubling, not least because she often sees fisherman nearby in the Patapsco.

“We’re not talking about some barren wasteland or some random point in the middle of the ocean where nobody’s ever going to interact with the pollution. We’re talking about a really popular fishing spot,” she said.

Meanwhile, Tuesday night, about 200 citizens attended a public meeting in Dundalk, organized by the Back River Restoration Committee, to discuss the problems at the Back River plant, including legislators, Maryland Department of the Environment Water and Science Administration Director Lee Currey and nonprofit representatives like Volpitta.


Residents expressed frustrations about the plant’s continued violations, and a lack of timely notifications about water quality for swimmers and boaters.

Melody Arbaugh, a homeowner in the Sussex community across the river from the plant, said she was upset with both the city’s operations of the plant and the state’s oversight.

“This latest debacle, although classified as water pollution, found its way onto dry land in our yard,” she said, according to a video of the meeting posted to the Restoration Committee’s Facebook page.

In March, at least 250 fish were found dead in Back River, along with floating materials that MDE officials deemed mats of algae, although some locals feared it was sewage. Once again on Tuesday, solid materials were discovered on the river, and the department is testing them, Apperson said.

“Make no mistake, public trust is nonexistent at this point,” Arbaugh said before Tuesday’s crowd.