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Energy & Environment

State to Temporarily Take Control of City’s Wastewater Treatment Plant

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.

Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles on Sunday said the Maryland Environmental Service would temporarily take control of Baltimore City’s Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant, the site of ongoing illegal discharges into the river.

Grumbles said the city had failed to comply with a previous state order to immediately end illegal discharges of water pollution into the river.

Grumbles’ directive tasks the Maryland Environmental Service with overseeing the operation, maintenance and improvements of the plant, to ensure that the city operates in compliance with all terms of its discharge permit and cease all illegal discharges from the plant.

“The ongoing and escalating problems at the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant present an unacceptable threat to the environment and public health,” Grumbles said in a statement. The directive states that the Department of the Environment “has determined that the decline in the proper maintenance and operation of the Plant risks catastrophic failures at the Plant that may result in environmental harm as well as adverse public health and comfort effects.”

The Maryland Environmental Service, a quasi-governmental agency, already runs and maintains state-owned water, wastewater and solid waste management facilities across Maryland.

The Back River plant is the largest in the state, designed to discharge up to 180 million gallons a day of treated wastewater. Baltimore City’s operation of the Back River and Patapsco wastewater treatment plants and the unauthorized discharge of pollutants, including nitrogen and phosphorus, undermines Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts by Maryland and the other bay watershed states, the Maryland Department of the Environment said. The rivers are tributaries of the Bay.

As of Sunday evening, city officials had not issued a public response to Grumbles’ order. According to the Department of the Environment, Grumbles spoke to Baltimore Mayor Brandon M. Scott (D) about conditions at the wastewater treatment plant on Friday, after issuing an order that the city had 48 hours to curb discharges at the plant.

Earlier this year, the Department of the Environment filed suit against the city seeking civil penalties and an order requiring the city to take all steps necessary for the Back River and Patapsco treatment plants to come into permanent and consistent compliance with environmental law. That case is pending.

Grumbles’ directive calls on the Maryland Environmental Service to work with Baltimore officials to ensure that the city meets the following objectives at the Back River plant: protecting public and environmental health; abating any further nuisance; providing appropriate levels of qualified staff; conducting appropriate maintenance, improvements and modifications; operating the Back River plant in compliance with all terms of the plant’s discharge permit from the state; and ceasing all unpermitted discharges from the plant.

The directive also calls for the environmental service to undertake an assessment of the plant’s operation, maintenance, staffing, and equipment and to submit a report to Department of the Environment of its findings and recommendations by June 6.