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Energy & Environment

Watchdog Group Files Lawsuit Against 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.

An environmental watchdog group filed a lawsuit against the City of Baltimore on Wednesday, seeking immediate remedies to the millions of gallons of partially untreated sewage released by two Baltimore wastewater treatment plants into the Chesapeake Bay.

Last summer, Blue Water Baltimore found high bacteria levels in the city’s harbor near the Patapsco Wastewater Treatment Plant, which is operated by the city, and reported it to the Maryland Department of the Environment. MDE found similar sewage outflow violations during an inspection at the Back River Wastewater Treatment, which is also operated by the city.

The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland under the federal Clean Water Act, which empowers individuals and nongovernmental groups to sue the government for failing to enforce or comply with its requirements.

Blue Water Baltimore has been working with the city’s Department of Public Works and the Maryland Department of the Environment to find a solution, said Alice Volpitta, Blue Water’s Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper. Baltimore DPW reported in October that it has corrected 26 of the 30 violations and has developed a strategic plan to correct the rest.

But “taking this step today ensures that no matter what happens…Baltimore’s residents will be represented under the Clean Water Act,” said Volpitta. “It’s really important for us to not leave any tools in the toolbox.”

More specifically, this action would allow a judge to force the city to resolve the wastewater treatment plants’ permit violations in a judicially enforceable consent decree, in the event that negotiations among Blue Water Baltimore, the city and Maryland environmental regulators break down, said Angela Haren, an attorney for the Chesapeake Legal Alliance who is representing Blue Water Baltimore.

This legal action signals to the city that Blue Water Baltimore plans to be involved in remedying the problems at the plants, she said.

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

At the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant, also operated by the city, state inspectors found similar sewage outflow violations “caused by operational and maintenance problems.” And they found that the violations began in August 2020.

The lawsuit lists a total of 15 permit violations by the two plants and asks the court to consider assessing civil penalties against the city and to consider requiring environmental projects in neighborhoods where residents are most affected by pollution.

Those projects could include large-scale tree planting and stormwater infrastructure improvement, Volpitta said.

Baltimore DPW officials declined to comment on the lawsuit and referred questions to the Baltimore City Law Department, which did not immediately respond to requests.

The Maryland Department of Environment did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Volpitta said Blue Water Baltimore wants to work cooperatively with the city and the Maryland Department of the Environment to develop a comprehensive plan that includes strict deadlines, stops pollution as quickly as possible and ensures that something similar does not happen again.

“If we just have another agreement that drags on into eternity, then we’re just going to see more pollution,” she said.

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Watchdog Group Files Lawsuit Against Baltimore for Wastewater Treatment Plant Failures