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Environmental Watchdog Group Sends Notice of Intent to Sue Baltimore for Wastewater Treatment Plant Failures

An aerial view of the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant in Baltimore. The plant is one of two wastewater treatment plants in Baltimore that have been releasing millions of gallons of partially untreated sewage into the Chesapeake Bay. Photo by Jane Thomas, Integration and Application Network/University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

After discovering that two wastewater treatment plants in Baltimore have been releasing millions of gallons of partially untreated sewage into the Chesapeake Bay, an environmental watchdog group has sent the city a notice that it may file a lawsuit to force improvements.

In May, Blue Water Baltimore found high bacteria levels in the Harbor near the Patapsco Wastewater Treatment Plant, which is operated by the City of Baltimore, and reported it to the Maryland Department of the Environment.

Site inspections conducted by MDE this summer confirmed that high levels of pollution have been flowing out of Patapsco Wastewater Treatment Plant beyond their permitted limits for months and has a “major facility design problem that requires an engineering solution.”

The Patapsco plant was also found illegally discharging fats, oils and grease into surface waters. Too much of this material has led to a backup and indicates a major treatment design problem, according to the inspection report.

In another inspection at the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant, which is also operated by the city, state inspectors found similar sewage outflow violations “caused by operational and maintenance problems.”

Betty Jacobs, representing the Back River plant, told the inspector that the plant’s main centrifuge began having problems in January, which means that solids were not being processed properly, according to the inspection report. However, the inspector found that the violations began in August 2020. “Preventative maintenance may have prevented this problem or decreased the downtime to have repairs made,” MDE inspector Ronald Wicks wrote in the report.

The wastewater treatment plants are subject to penalties of up to $10,000 per day for water pollution violations, Lee Currey, the director of Water and Science Administration of MDE, said in a letter to Baltimore DPW.

In 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency set the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) pollutant reduction target, which requires six Bay states and the District of Columbia to implement plans that would reduce nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution into the Bay by 2025.

The violations at the state’s two largest wastewater treatment plants make it more challenging for Bay states to meet their TMDL pollutant reduction target, Blue Water Baltimore said.

Too much nitrogen and phosphorus pollution can lead to algae blooms, which, while decomposing, suck up most of the oxygen from the water that fish need to breathe, leading to fish kills. “Ultimately, these facilities are discharging liquid algae fertilizer into our local waterways,” said Alice Volpitta, Blue Water’s Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper.

Sewage also brings harmful bacteria into waterways that makes it unsafe to swim or fish in.

On the behalf of Blue Water Baltimore, the Chesapeake Legal Alliance sent Baltimore a letter of their intent to file a federal lawsuit on Oct. 5, which means that the organization could bring a federal lawsuit after 60 days of the notice. However, Blue Water Baltimore’s preference is to work collaboratively with MDE and Baltimore Department of Public Works to find a resolution, Volpitta said.

Volpitta described the notice of intent to sue as a “legal backstop.” The ideal resolution, she said, is a consent decree in state court that brings MDE, Baltimore DPW and Blue Water Baltimore together to find a solution. However, if the issue is not resolved in a timely manner, Blue Water Baltimore is prepared to file a federal lawsuit, Volpitta said.

It is important to have a legally binding agreement to ensure solutions to the wastewater treatment plant violations actually get implemented, she said.

A resolution could include a combination of more training, engineering solutions, and more resources for the wastewater treatment plants, Volpitta said.

The plants could also engage in supplemental environmental projects, or environmentally beneficial projects that polluters can undertake as part of a settlement. These projects can include large-scale tree planting projects in neighborhoods where the residents are most affected and stormwater infrastructure improvement projects in Baltimore, Volpitta said.

Volpitta said she imagines it will take years to get both wastewater treatment plants fully in compliance and operating at a level that ensures healthy water quality. MDE said it is committed to fixing the problems at the plants and is open to working with Blue Water Baltimore.

“MDE is focused on holding the City accountable and getting the wastewater plants back on track. We welcome Blue Water Baltimore’s extensive input and encourage other citizens and community groups to share their thoughts, as well,” Maryland Secretary of the Environment Ben Grumbles said in a statement.

The Baltimore DPW, in a statement released Friday, faulted the sewage violations to the COVID-19 pandemic and a ransom attack on city in 2019, which have “caused a strain on consistent staffing, training, and availability of parts and equipment for maintenance and repair.”

Baltimore DPW said it has corrected 26 of the 30 violations and has developed a strategic plan to correct the rest.

“DPW is committed to being good stewards of the environment,” Baltimore DPW Director Jason W. Mitchell said in a statement. “The root causes for the violations have been identified by DPW and will be addressed systematically to ensure we achieve 100% compliance. We look forward to remedying our operational issues and instituting new processes around preventative maintenance to ensure we maintain compliance in the future.”

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Environmental Watchdog Group Sends Notice of Intent to Sue Baltimore for Wastewater Treatment Plant Failures