Pollution violations uncovered recently at Maryland’s two largest sewage treatment plants have been or are in the process of being fixed, Baltimore city and state officials say.

But maintenance and operational problems continue at the city’s Back River and Patapsco plants, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment. A corrective action plan prepared by the city Department of Public Works indicates some issues could take years to completely resolve.

Meanwhile, Blue Water Baltimore, the nonprofit environmental group that blew the whistle on problems at the two facilities, has served notice it will sue unless it’s given a seat at the table in talks between the city and MDE over how to bring the plants into compliance.

“We would much prefer to work collaboratively with all the agencies involved,” said Alice Volpitta, the group’s Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper. “But if we need to, we will absolutely bring a citizen enforcement suit.”

Baltimore Harbor water monitoring

Alice Volpitta, Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper, collects water samples from the Patapsco River in Baltimore in 2020 to check for bacteria levels. 

Blue Water Baltimore alerted the MDE last spring that its routine water quality monitoring of the harbor revealed high bacteria levels in treated wastewater coming from the Patapsco plant. An MDE inspector then found “numerous deficiencies and violations” at both facilities, which together discharge about 250 million gallons of treated wastewater daily into tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay.

Among the findings of the May and June inspections: key treatment equipment malfunctioning or out of order, staffing shortages and botched sampling for toxic contaminants in the wastewater.

The problems became public Aug. 30 when Blue Water released the MDE inspection reports for both plants along with an MDE letter to the city demanding immediate corrective action. On Sept. 17, the public works department submitted a “strategic plan” to MDE outlining a series of short-term and long-term steps for resolving problems at each plant.

In the plan, city officials said the violations cited by the MDE resulted from “severe staffing shortages and persistent repair and maintenance issues” over the past two years, which they said were exacerbated by a 2019 ransomware attack on the city followed by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Most of the infractions were “reporting and business process” issues, they said, with relatively few actual pollution violations.

But as the MDE’s August letter noted, both plants had racked up “significant violations” since sometime in 2020, including repeatedly discharging excessive amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, bacteria and other pollutants.

Patapsco wastewater plant aerial

Baltimore's Patapsco Wastewater Treatment Plant, in left foreground, discharges about 55 million gallons a day into the Patapsco River just upriver of the Key Bridge. (Jane Thomas, Integration and Application Network, UMCES)

An MDE inspector visited the Back River plant again on Sept. 20 and found some improvements, including the repair of some equipment. But he also found continuing problems with other treatment processes, including a lack of maintenance that allows algae and even plants to grow in some tanks. He concluded the report by tallying seven violations, three fewer than listed in the MDE’s August letter.

The Patapsco plant was inspected on Oct. 5, but MDE spokesman Jay Apperson said that report was not finished.

On Oct. 8, the city’s public works department issued a press release declaring it had already fixed the “reporting and business process concerns” raised by state inspectors. Moreover, it contended that the vast majority of violations cited by the MDE at the two plants have been corrected.

But city officials indicated in the plan submitted earlier to the MDE that it would take them two to six months to hire and train more staff and complete reviews and contracts for cleaning and repairing some equipment.

Some treatment processes also need more extensive upgrades, the report said, and with time needed for design and issuing contracts, it could be up to two years before that work could begin. Plans for changing how both plants handle sewage sludge could take five years to complete, the report said.

Volpitta, the Harbor Waterkeeper, said bacteria counts have come back down in recent water samples, but the underlying causes of that pollution have yet to be fully addressed.

“A lot of these are systemic problems that aren’t going to be solved overnight,” she said. “They require systemic solutions” that should involve more than just city officials and state regulators.

Under the federal Clean Water Act, citizen groups like Blue Water Baltimore can file a lawsuit to get a polluter to take cleanup actions. Volpitta said her group doesn’t want to sue the city but sent the notification as a “legal backstop” to reserve its right to go to court if need be.

“What we would really like to do is work with Baltimore city and MDE to bring the plants back into compliance in a way that is best for Baltimore city residents,” she said.

While the city ought to be penalized for the severity and duration of the plants’ violations, she said that she hoped any fine would not be so steep that it would raise residents’ utility bills, and that perhaps the city might be required instead to spend money on other environmental improvements in Baltimore in lieu of simply writing a check to the government.

Volpitta noted that both the Back River and Patapsco plants have previously undergone costly treatment upgrades, funded in large part by the state, to enhance their ability to reduce nutrient pollution of local waters and the Bay.

“We’re not going to achieve the pollution reductions we need for the Bay…,” she said, “if we don’t have those systems up and functioning.”

Tim Wheeler is the Bay Journal's associate editor and senior writer, based in Maryland. You can reach him at 410-409-3469 or twheeler@bayjournal.com.

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