The state of Maryland and local governments in the Baltimore area have spent about $1 billion on the city’s Back River and Patapsco wastewater treatment plants over the past decade. So when Sen. Guy Guzzone (D-Howard), chair of the Budget and Taxation Committee, first heard about multiple water pollution problems at the Back River plant earlier this year, he was alarmed — and chagrined.
“We consider ourselves partners in this,” Guzzone said of himself and his colleagues in the General Assembly. “That we had to read about it in the newspaper wasn’t ideal. When we invest a billion dollars, we have a responsibility, as members of the legislature, as fiscal stewards of taxpayer dollars, to know what’s going on.”
The pollution crisis at the water plant has attracted headlines, handwringing and government scrutiny for the past several months, as officials labor to bring the plant, which serves Baltimore City and Baltimore County and plays a major role in protecting the Chesapeake Bay and other waterways, back into compliance with state and federal laws. On Wednesday, the Budget and Taxation Committee, along with several state and local officials, toured the Back River plant and heard about the city’s efforts to improve conditions there.
Sen. Cory McCray (D), chair of Baltimore City’s Senate delegation, noted that Back River was considered a state of the art wastewater treatment plant in the 1950’s and ’60s.
“Folks lost confidence in this facility in a very public way,” he said. “The question is, how do you get it back? As you set these timelines and these goals for improvements, you have to have it done in a very transparent way.”
But the lawmakers weren’t there to point fingers or re-litigate some of the deficiencies that caused the plant to fall out of compliance with environmental compliance. Instead, they used the tour to learn about city efforts to make necessary improvements at the plant and to consider ways the state can lend a hand in the months ahead.
The tour itself, through the massive plant grounds just off of Eastern Aveue over the city line in Baltimore County, was also meant to teach the uninitiated about how a wastewater treatment plant is supposed to work.
“I hope you get a sense of the vastness and complexity of wastewater treatment in general and the Back River plant in particular,” said Yosef Kebede, head of the Baltimore City Department of Public Works’ Water and Wastewater division.
The visuals were impressive, but to the untrained eye, it was hard to tell exactly what was happening, as tour vans moved past facilities housing grit removal machines, primary settling tanks, activated sludge reactors, gravity belt thickeners, and more. The various buildings and machinery emitted mysterious and sometimes unpleasant odors. Still, it was an educational experience.
“I feel like my IQ went up today,” said Sen. Melony Griffith (D-Prince George’s), as the committee’s 2 1/2-hour visit came to an end. “Most people will never know the terminology and acronyms, processes and systems, but at the end of the day, it’s a public health issue.”
At the most basic level, “wastewater treatment is the separation of solids and water,” explained Michael Hallmen, acting director of the Water Treatment Division at the Baltimore City Department of Public Works. At each stop on the tour, he explained what the hulking machinery was meant to do, whether it was removing solids from the water, sifting various levels of sand, or collecting sludge. At the final stop, the officials looked over a filtration area where the wastewater is cleaned before being sent through a waterway out to the Back River, a tributary of the Chesapeake.
The good news, city and state environmental officials said, is that the water exiting the plant is now in compliance with federal and state regulations — and it looked clear as Hallmen and his colleagues ladled up samples for the lawmakers to see (no one was brave enough to drink it). But several other environmental challenges remain, including the fact that storage tanks are still taking in too many solids.
The problems “didn’t happen overnight, and they couldn’t be solved overnight,” Hallmen said. “We’re not even half done. The key was to get the water right first.”
The plant also faces multiple operational challenges, including aging equipment and infrastructure and staff shortages that were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. About 30% of the jobs at the plant are vacant, officials said. The problems, they added, aren’t endemic to Baltimore, but they do make operating and fixing the plant more time-consuming and costly.
In an interview, Guzzone said his committee is “going to put some thought” into whether the wastewater treatment plants need more state aid.
“We don’t want government operations to be in that kind of position where they’re breaking down,” he said. “We want to make sure the planning is there and the funding is there.”
Sen. Sarah Elfreth (D-Anne Arundel), a member of the Budget and Taxation Committee and chair of the regional Chesapeake Bay Commission, regarded the filtration area, gazed in the distance to the Back River, and shook her head.
“This is the part of government that no one wants to think about until it fails,” she said.