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Baltimore leaders, environmental groups fault state regulators and city public works officials for wastewater treatment plant failures

Environmental advocacy groups and Baltimore leaders called on the city to swiftly correct staffing and equipment failures at its two wastewater treatment plants, saying they cast major doubts on efforts to revive the Chesapeake Bay and hold polluters to account.

The Patapsco and Back River wastewater treatment plants have been releasing partially treated sewage with excessive amounts of nutrient pollution and harmful bacteria for the past year without detection, violations that came to light after the environmental group Blue Water Baltimore raised concerns with state regulators.

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State officials said the Patapsco plant had not been inspected in person since September 2018 and the Back River plant since February 2019, and that “major issues” were found in those inspections, too.

Before the ongoing releases were disclosed Monday, those worried for the health of the Chesapeake had been led to believe that such plants — Baltimore’s are two of the largest in Maryland — were outperforming expectations for their ability to reduce the amount of harmful nitrogen and phosphorus released into the bay.

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Learning that may not be the case, despite $1.6 billion in court-ordered city sewer system upgrades to reduce pollution, one bay advocate questioned whether there is even more work to do to clean up waterways than previously known, and if others also may be cutting corners without enough oversight from the Maryland Department of the Environment.

“If the two largest plants in the state can get away with it, why wouldn’t everybody else do it?” asked Doug Myers, Maryland senior scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

He was among those calling for harsh penalties for the Baltimore Department of Public Works, which operates the plants.

“Not only does there need to be a big fine, but it needs to be publicly advertised by MDE that they will not tolerate poor management of these plants,” Myers said.

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City Hall officials called the findings troubling and disappointing, and said they want answers from public works officials.

“The inspectors’ findings are troubling, especially when our water customers are paying for $1.6 billion in upgrades to Baltimore’s wastewater system under the federal consent decree,” City Council President Nick J. Mosby said. “I am looking forward to receiving more information from the public works director to understand more about the timeline and steps the city will take to systematically address the problems uncovered at the treatment plants.”

City Councilman Mark Conway said he was disappointed it appeared to take Blue Water’s alarm to spur action.

“It’s important that when these problems happen, we do what we need to fix them,” Conway said. “That wasn’t done here and I’m following up with Director Mitchell to understand next steps and underscore the urgency.”

But state environment officials reiterated Tuesday that they already were aware of problems at the plants and were working with the city Department of Public Works.

Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles called the pollution “an enforcement priority” Monday, while Baltimore Public Works Director Jason W. Mitchell said the “root causes for the violations have been identified by DPW and will be addressed systematically.”

Alice Volpitta, Blue Water’s Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper, said her staff first noticed elevated levels of bacteria near the Patapsco plant in Wagner’s Point in their first samples of 2021, collected April 20. When data from May 4 also came back with concerning levels of bacteria, Blue Water alerted the state environment agency, which sent an inspector to the plant the next day.

A statement from the state environment agency suggested the timing was coincidental. Agency staff learned of nutrient pollution violations from city-reported data in late 2020, and started requesting data from the city in January in preparation for on-site inspections beginning in May, state officials said.

Because the plants are so large, “it takes significant time to prepare for the many complexities of an onsite inspection,” the statement said.

State regulators documented problems including “scattered” cases of “broken or malfunctioning equipment,” “insufficient maintenance and operational staff,” and mishandled or incorrectly collected water samples provided to the state, according to a state report.

The investigation came to a head with an Aug. 23 letter from the state to the city demanding a meeting to discuss solutions, along with the threat of penalties that could total $10,000 for each day of violations.

The pollution is a major concern for environmentalists and ecologists because any nitrogen and phosphorus emitted after wastewater treatment can fuel algae blooms that cloud waterways and eventually create “dead zones” where the water contains little or no dissolved oxygen that aquatic life need to breathe. Fecal bacteria also can sicken anglers, swimmers or recreational boaters.

Baltimore is under a federal consent decree to upgrade its aging, decrepit sewer system and repair leaks, which are a violation of the federal Clean Water Act, by 2030.

Grumbles said in-person inspections are not always possible given the large number of sites the agency regulates, but that the state uses self-reported data from the plants and other facilities, along with input from groups like Blue Water Baltimore, to apply resources toward enforcement most efficiently.

But Katlyn Schmitt, a policy analyst who tracks Maryland’s environmental enforcement activity for the Center for Progressive Reform, said the deeper problems with equipment and staffing at Baltimore’s wastewater plants could only be uncovered through in-person inspections.

Schmitt has compiled data show a long-standing downward trend in the state’s environmental enforcement. The number of sites that state inspectors visited fell dramatically in the state’s 2020 fiscal year, which ended June 30, 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, to fewer than 32,000. That compared with 55,000 in fiscal 2019 and 68,000 in fiscal 2018. MDE is responsible for inspecting everything from coal mines to recycling centers to construction sites to reservoirs.

In its oversight of water pollution, specifically, the 22 enforcement actions the state took in fiscal 2020 were the fewest in at least 20 years, following a trend of declining inspections and enforcement. The department inspected about 2,300 sites for water pollution in both fiscal years 2020 and 2019, down from more than 5,000 as recently as 2012.

The state employed about 157 inspectors as of fiscal year 2020, which ended in June 2020. That is 10 fewer than a year earlier, and well below a peak of 172 inspectors in fiscal 2010. The number of inspectors detailed to water pollution investigations has fallen from a high of 62 in fiscal 2015 to 53 currently.

Inspection of wastewater plants and their compliance with requirements to reduce nutrient output is especially important because they are one of the largest sources of such pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. Upgrades to all 66 wastewater plants across the state since new permitting standards began being imposed in 2005 — largely funded through a fee on Marylanders’ water bills known as the “flush tax” — have been said to reduce pollution so dramatically that it offset failures to cut nutrients in other ways.

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“This calls into question all of that,” Myers said.

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State environment officials said in a statement that fewer inspections were conducted because in-person investigations were postponed amid the pandemic.

“Our goal is a safe and high-quality environment,” they said. “We will go after polluters and impose financial penalties as warranted.”

Concern over the declining environmental enforcement under Gov. Larry Hogan is not new. When some lawmakers and advocates raised alarm about the drop in inspections in 2017, a Hogan spokesman said the bay was at its cleanest in 25 years, and that the results of the administration’s environmental enforcement “speak for themselves.”

Del. Brooke Lierman, a Baltimore Democrat who has long pressed the state on environmental enforcement in her role on the House’s environment committee, called continued decline in inspections “frustrating.” The General Assembly passed a bill this year that aims to reverse that trend, or at least provide more transparency, requiring more frequent and publicly accessible reports from the state on enforcement of environmental laws and regulations.

“Sometimes it feels like the process of cleaning up the bay is one step forward, two steps back, when actually it should be the reverse,” Lierman said.

At least there are groups like Blue Water Baltimore keeping an eye on things, she said.

Three of the nonprofit’s staff members, including Volpitta, conduct routine water quality monitoring at 49 sites around Baltimore from April through November. It’s a significant effort that costs about $250,000 a year.

Volpitta said she is frustrated that state officials didn’t notify the public on their own, let alone that the pollution is occurring at all. But she considered it “a huge win” that Blue Water could play a role in ensuring it gets fixed.

“I don’t know to what extent MDE has been aware of these violations and for how long,” she said. “What I do know is action is being taken now because of our work.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Emily Opilo contributed to this article.

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