Back in the spring of 2021, when staffers from the watchdog group Blue Water Baltimore went out in their boat, The Muckraker, to conduct routine sampling at the effluent pipe for the Patapsco Wastewater Treatment Plant, they made a disturbing discovery:
Extremely high bacteria levels were flowing into the Patapsco River.
The Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) confirmed their findings and then some – determining that millions of gallons of partially-treated human waste were being illegally released every day by the plant and another facility run by Baltimore, the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant.
Now as a result of a lawsuit by the group and its attorneys at the Chesapeake Legal Alliance, the city has agreed to pay a fine of up to $4.75 million and meet deadlines to make repairs.
MDE Secretary Serena McIlwain lauded the settlement, saying in a press release that it “puts us on the right path to repair and upgrade our state’s two largest wastewater treatment plants, which means healthier waterways, a healthier Chesapeake Bay and a healthier Maryland.”
State and city officials have made similar sunny statements over the last two years amid continuing reports of disturbing conditions at the facilities.
Persistent worrisome findings – of equipment clogged with sludge, tanks coated with FOG (fats, oils and grease), and bureaucratic dysfunction including employees sleeping on the job – spawned concern among Bay advocates that nutrient-laden wastewater was continuing to contaminate local waterways.
What will be different as a result of the 81-page consent decree released yesterday?
“The difference is now we have a legally enforceable agreement. Meaning that we’re not just taking their word for it that things are going well,” said Alice Volpitta, the Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper with Blue Water Baltimore.
“There’s an extra layer of accountability that we never had before,” Volpitta told The Brew.
Promises and Warning Lights
Under the agreement, the city promises to replace and repair specified equipment, submit quarterly progress reports, disclose staffing plans and hold annual public meetings to inform the public of the work being done.
To protect public health, the city will be required to install signs and warning lights at the treatment plant outfalls in the Patapsco and Back Rivers, which will turn on if sewage discharges bypass some or all of the plants’ treatment processes.
Third-party engineers will be hired to ensure the city is on track with the milestones in the decree.
“I’m really excited that $1.9 million will stay in Baltimore and not get sucked into the state’s coffers” – Alice Volpitta, Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper.
According to Blue Water Baltimore, the settlement imposes the largest civil penalty for a water pollution violation in Maryland in decades.
Compliance, however, will dictate how much of that fine is actually paid.
If the city meets its obligations in the first two years, the state would waive up to 30% of the penalty, or $1.4 million.
If Baltimore failed to meet the deadlines or exceeded its pollution limits, it would pay that amount, and possibly be charged with additional penalties.
Under another provision of the agreement, $1.9 million of the city’s penalty will go toward environmental projects with a focus on the Back River and the Patapsco watersheds. The grants are to be distributed by the Chesapeake Bay Trust.
“We fought for that,” Volpitta said. “I’m really excited that $1.9 million will stay in Baltimore and not get sucked into the state’s coffers.”
“Has anything been fixed?”
The settlement, which still must be approved by the Board of Estimates and accepted by a Baltimore City Circuit Court judge, is the latest chapter in a saga of extraordinary mishaps, pollution releases, management lapses, and regulatory rebukes that have kept the plants in the news for the past two and a half years.
In March 2022, the state brought in the quasi-public Maryland Environmental Service (MES) to assume temporary management control of Back River.
But even with this partial state takeover, troubles continued at both plants.
“You look at the inspection reports. Pictures of scum, non-functioning equipment, equipment clogged with solids. We’re going right back to where we were,” Desiree Greaver said last February, pointing to MDE’s latest inspection report on the facility.
“The smells just two days ago were gut-wrenching,” Greaver, project manager for the Back River Restoration Committee, told The Brew at the time.
“The smells just two days ago were gut-wrenching” – Desiree Greaver, of the Back River Restoration Committee, in February.
Casting even more doubt was the explosion that occurred in March at Back River’s biosolids processing facility – at a time when the state was saying that MES would be withdrawn by the end of the month.
“This gives me renewed concerns about the overall functioning of the plant,” Middle River’s Delegate Robin Grammer Jr. said in an interview at the time. “Has anything been fixed?”
Greaver told The Brew today she was “shocked to see that everything had been settled” and “really thrilled” with the size of the fine and the scope of the agreement.
“We felt like this would take forever,” she said, speaking for her organization, which advocates for the Baltimore County waterway.
She was especially pleased with the provision of the settlement that directs funds to local watershed efforts and said her group is hoping to get some of the money to purchase a trash wheel, like Baltimore’s, to help them clean up the floating garbage and logs that accumulate on Back River.
“Right now it’s done by a plastic boom operated by a 72-year-old man and myself and others who get right in there and do this by hand,” she said.
“Bacteria levels at the boom are always higher,” Greaver added, noting that the items they pick up include “disposable diapers and bottles filled with urine.”
Even with this manual process, she said, Back River Restoration Committee has collected 130 tons of trash from the river since July 1.
Supporting program’s like Greaver’s was an important goal of the lawsuit, along with bringing Baltimore’s sewage plants into compliance with the Clean Water Act, noted Angela Haren, attorney with Chesapeake Legal Alliance.
“Conditions at these plants were dire for residents, employees, and for the environment,” Sydnee Wilson Ruff, Blue Water Baltimore’s interim director, said in a press release.
“This agreement strikes a delicate balance between holding polluters accountable, and keeping the lion’s share of the penalty money in the waterways and communities that were most affected by the pollution.”
Haren said she is “very confident that we’ve written the best possible agreement to fix the plants quickly.”
“We’ve got deadline of, not 10 years, but within two years that things have to be done,” she said. “Now it’s up to the city and state to do their part.”
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