If you are one of the 1.3 million people served by the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant, you are inextricably connected to residents of Dundalk and Essex by wastewater. While this blog is not meant to be a lambasting of Baltimore City Department of Public Works, it is meant to make visible the voices of those who are most impacted by the treatment plant and that usually sift into the background.
In March 2022, the Back River Wastewater Treatment plant was cited for egregious and illegal releases of partly treated sewage into the Back River. As CBF’s Senior Scientist Doug Myers said at that time: “The photos and stories emerging this week about the Back River plant are shocking. It looks like many parts of this plant receive no routine maintenance and most of the treatment systems are compromised as a result. There must be no more excuses.” How did the treatment plant operations get detected? Local fishermen in the Back River made known a large fish kill and black, oozing masses in the river that smelled like feces. In response to local cries from the Back River Restoration Committee that there were floating waste solids in the Back River, the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) claimed that it was algae, not feces.
But this is only the most recent complaint from locals. In fact, incidents of problems at the plant date back 75 years to 1948. Here are just a sampling of those stories.
Three decades ago in 1989, the “poo poo choo choo” left the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant in Baltimore County and headed south with 61 open rail cars carrying 5,000 tons of human sewage sludge. The sludge train was a part of Baltimore’s attempt to comply with a court order to remove 210,000 tons of backlogged sludge from the treatment plant. The train was traveling to Louisiana, but that plan never worked out. It was forcibly removed in Mississippi where the governor threatened the train company with $2 million in fines per day. The odorous sludge went northwest to Arkansas where it was met with a temporary restraining order. Baltimore had a moral responsibility to take it back, and residents were infuriated. Mary Rosso, President of the Maryland Waste Coalition, was particularly outspoken on the issue: “We will be very outraged. We might even march on the mayor’s office. Enough is enough.”
Just a few years prior, in May of 1984, fishermen reported an unusual fish kill of eels in the Back River. State scientists cited the treatment plant and its deteriorating condition as playing a large role in it. As MDE official Dane S. Bauer said at the time: “The equipment has gotten to the point that all the Band-Aids holding it together just won’t hold anymore.” Five years earlier, Baltimore City, the municipality responsible for maintaining the treatment plant, had made a conscious decision not to spend substantial amounts of its own money on repairs because it was in the process of getting a $400 million grant to upgrade the plant’s level of treatment. But that grant was not expected to be received until the early 1990s.
Decades prior, in 1952, the Baltimore Sun ran a letter to the editor by Dundalk native Lillian Grace Moreland. Moreland was a community advocate who participated in the creation of the Back River Civic Improvement Association. In her letter to the editor, she wrote, “It is doubtless true that the construction of the sewage-disposal plant in 1911 was a progressive sign for Baltimore City. However, it is hoped that those city officials of that day are living today and realizing how very wrong they were in their ridicule of the possibility of damage to property values on Back River.”
Moreland goes on to explain how Baltimore’s population had quadrupled since 1911. “Had that sum been spent on improvement of facilities to keep pace with the ever-increasing demands placed on the plant,” Moreland wrote, “there would have been no problem—but the plant stood still, its equipment became antiquated and the property owners along the river became the victims of the flies and mosquitos as well as the stench of raw sewage and dead fish which piled up on their shores because they could not live in the polluted waters.”
In yet another Baltimore Sun example, this one from 1948: “Aroused householders along Back River met last night in Town Hall, on Eastern Avenue, to discuss ways of combating pollution in the river. Some 300 strong, under the leadership of James F. Waters, Jr., president of the Back River Improvement Association. They met to hear irate members of the organization express their views, which they did, for the most part ‘with deep disgust.’”
The article goes on to discuss that water samples taken from the river clearly indicated pollution of the river by raw sewage. Locals complained that near the city sewage disposal plant, the river was covered with a heavy film of floating greenish matter, which spread on their beaches, causing an unmistakable odor. Local fisherman complained at the town hall that the condition had gotten so bad at times that he received complaints about the fish he catches in the area. And when a Baltimore County commissioner said that nothing could be done to relieve the situation, a local rose to say that she would like to see those officials thrown into the bubbling, green matter covering the river.
For close to a century, Dundalk and Essex community members have consistently been the ones to raise the alarm on issues at the treatment plant. They have been a force for change. While MDE reports that the plant is progressing in improvements, it will be up to the local community and environmental organizations like CBF to hold them accountable. For our community, for our environment, and for our health.
Stay informed, stay engaged. Concerned citizens can fill out Baltimore City Department of Public Work’s inquiry form to submit concerns to plant managers.
Daniella Bacigalupa, CBF Grants Coordinator