Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles on Sunday ordered the state to take over operations of the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant in Dundalk, the largest such facility in the United States. State.
The extraordinary step came after the Maryland Department of the Environment “determined that the decline in proper maintenance and operation of the plant was at risk of catastrophic failures,” according to Grumbles’ directive.
An inspection report released last week showed widespread maintenance issues at the city-run facility, preventing it from properly treating sewage entering it. Environmental regulators believe this resulted in massive releases of partially treated sewage into the Back River, along with the Chesapeake Bay’s harmful nutrients and dangerous bacteria.
The MDE issued an order Thursday requiring the plant to comply with environmental laws within two days. But an inspection of the site on Saturday revealed it had failed to make the necessary improvements.
Now Grumbles has asked the Maryland Environmental Service to take the helm. In a statement, Maryland Department of Environment spokesman Jay Apperson said the action was a tool of state law “reserved for extremely rare situations,” adding that officials do not were aware of any previous examples of its use.
Under Grumbles’ directive, MES will be tasked with working with Baltimore to resolve maintenance issues to ensure the city has the right personnel on board to make the fixes and to train more workers to temporarily supplement existing personnel if necessary.
Baltimore would foot the bill for all costs incurred by MES as it works to restore the plant to working order.
The Environmental Department will also be required to complete a “comprehensive assessment and assessment” of Back River’s operation, maintenance, staffing and equipment by June 6.
Neither the City of Baltimore’s Department of Public Works nor the mayor’s office immediately responded to a request for comment on the situation.
Blue Water Baltimore’s Port of Baltimore water guardian Alice Volpitta on Sunday called MDE’s move a “huge step forward.”
“I have personally worked on sewer issues in Baltimore for the past eight years – since I’ve been with Blue Water,” she said. “This is the first time I feel like we are seeing significant, tangible progress towards clean water on this specific issue.”
The plant has been under public scrutiny, alongside Baltimore’s other sewage treatment facility, since last summer after Blue Water Baltimore detected high levels of bacteria near it. plant.
State inspectors visited both facilities and documented significant issues, which had resulted in the release of millions of gallons per day of partially treated sewage over a period of several months.
At the time, the city announced that it would come up with a plan to address factory violations.
In late January, Maryland and Blue Water Baltimore sued Baltimore over problems at Back River and its city-based counterpart, Patapsco’s wastewater treatment plant at Wagner’s Point.
But — at least in Back River — the follow-up inspection last week found the problems were only getting worse.
The inspection came after boaters discovered hundreds of dead fish floating in Back River waters near the plant, alongside mats of algae that to some looked ominously like sewage. .
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When excessive nutrients, such as those contained in partially treated wastewater, are discharged into a body of water, they excessively stimulate algae growth. In large quantities, algal blooms can block sunlight from marine environments, and as they die they are broken down by bacteria – a process that strips the surrounding water of dissolved oxygen, essentially suffocating fish, crabs and other creatures in so-called “dead zones”. .”
Inside the plant, an inspector documented widespread maintenance issues. He found equipment clogged with accumulations of sewage and covered in vegetation and algae. Employees told him that only two of 11 settling tanks – intended to separate solid waste from liquids – were working. Thus, solid waste clogged the structures at different stages of the treatment process, resulting in
Volpitta warned on Sunday that the state takeover of the plant was only a temporary step. The state, along with interested groups like Blue Water, have yet to come up with a long-term plan that would get Baltimore’s wastewater treatment plants back on track. This could take the form of a legally binding consent decree.
Baltimore is already under a federal consent decree to upgrade its aging sewer system to stop sewage overflows by 2030. The city and county are spending about $1.6 billion to upgrades.
In the meantime, however, the deal with MES could funnel additional personnel and resources to the beleaguered plant, said Angela Haren, senior attorney at the Chesapeake Legal Alliance, which represents Blue Water Baltimore in its case.
“One thing that’s very clear is that there haven’t been enough staff,” Haren said. “So the more qualified people who understand how treatment plants work have been able to get to the site, the better.”
Baltimore Sun reporter McKenna Oxenden contributed to this article.