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Fresh Water, Foul Sewage

Environmentby Fern Shen10:05 amMar 28, 20230

Clean Harbors says it will not process East Palestine wastewater in Baltimore

Decision comes after the Scott administration – under fire over the proposal – denied the company’s application to send the pre-treated water to the Back River sewage plant

Above: The Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant in Baltimore County, where a private company sought permission to discharge pre-treated train derailment remediation water. (Chesapeake Bay Program/bayjournal.com)

Clean Harbors is dropping its plan to accept contaminated water from the East Palestine, Ohio, railroad derailment at its Baltimore plant.

“Given the actions that Mayor [Brandon] Scott has taken in denying our request to discharge the East Palestine pre-treated wastewater into the Baltimore City system, we will not be processing any of the wastewater from the EPA-regulated cleanup of the site in Ohio at our Baltimore plant,” Clean Harbors spokesman James R. Buckley told The Brew today.

The company’s statement came in response to a letter city officials sent them yesterday saying that, while the wastewater could be brought to the company’s South Baltimore plant to be decontaminated, it could not then be discharged to the city’s Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant in Dundalk.

The letter said the Massachusetts-based company has a right to request an administrative review of the decision. The company’s response made clear it does not choose to do so.

“While we are confident that our Baltimore facility is safe to handle and process that waste, as we have made clear from the beginning of this process, we would only be moving forward with the approval of all federal, state and local regulators,” Buckley said in an email.

Public Furor

The decision appears to end what was shaping up to be a major environmental battle – and potential public relations nightmare – for the Scott administration, which initially appeared to be acceding to the plan.

Opposition rolled in from a broad spectrum of voices – from environmental scientists to suburban Republican lawmakers to city-based Democrats, including Rep. Kweisi Mfume.

Cohen and Porter join protest against Ohio derailment water being shipped to Baltimore (3/27/23)

Lawmakers vow to block discharge of Ohio derailment water into Back River treatment plant (3/25/23)

Environmentalists decry plan to bring East Palestine derailment water to Baltimore (3/24/23)

After both expressing “grave concern” about the plan and pointing to the decision as a matter of civic pride (officials “chose Back River because Back River is actually operating in good standing and can handle this”), Scott took a much firmer tone in a statement released last night.

“Make no mistake, I stand against any efforts that could comprise the health and safety of our residents and the environment,” he said.

“I extend my deepest sympathy to the East Palestine, Ohio, community as they grapple with the effects of this devastating derailment on their community,” Scott continued, “but I must remain steadfast in my commitment to protect our residents at all costs.”

“Chemicals of Concern”

The letter from city’s Department of Public Works had informed Clean Harbors that “a cursory review of the waste profile” raised concerns about the potential impact of the pre-treated wastewater on the troubled Back River plant.

Specifically, the letter said, the discharge could threaten the plant’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit.

The potential for impact “on collection and plant treatment system, residuals, plant personnel and the receiving waters” were a serious concern, Pollution Control Program Administrator Patricia A. Boyle wrote.

“The residual organic chemicals, unknown, suspected and confirmed, are of primary concern because of the potential impact of volatized organics in the sanitary sewerage conveyance system and Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant, especially in confined areas and aerated processes,” Boyle continued.

“Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) create hazardous conditions in confined spaces and enclosed buildings, endanger sewer workers and plant personnel and contribute to air quality issues,” the letter said.

Back River’s sewage sludge problems were well known for years ((3/20/23)

The DPW letter did not mention the many issues already plaguing the plant, where illegal sewage releases and other problems triggered a temporary state management  takeover last March.

An explosion and fire two weeks ago at the sludge drying facility renewed concerns about plant operations and employee safety.

Environmental groups that had opposed bringing the wastewater to Baltimore hailed today’s news.

“This was a poorly hatched plan from the beginning that failed to account for the ongoing and significant issues at Maryland’s largest wastewater treatment plant,” said Doug Myers, senior scientist for the Chesapeake bay Foundation.

“We’re thankful Mayor Scott took the quick and bold action needed to stop this shipment of toxic wastewater from arriving in Baltimore,” he continued.

“We urge Maryland and city leaders to re-focus on fixing the ongoing maintenance and staffing problems at the Back River and Patapsco wastewater
treatment plants that have been documented for two years now.”

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