The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) is urging Baltimore’s Department of Public Works (DPW) to take swift action to address the litany of pollution problems revealed at the Back River and Patapsco wastewater treatment plants. The issues have the potential to significantly harm the success of Maryland’s ongoing Bay cleanup work, which depends on significant pollutant reductions from wastewater treatment plants.
The problems were only made public after the nonprofit Blue Water Baltimore issued a news release Monday detailing the high amount of nitrogen, phosphorus, and bacteria flowing from these plants’ outfalls near the Baltimore Harbor.
Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), the agency tasked with enforcing wastewater pollution permits, sent a letter to DPW Aug. 26 after inspections of the two plants in May and June found numerous problems. MDE did not notify the public of their findings, despite being aware of the plants releasing significant amounts of pollutants due to operational issues. The plants are required to meet wastewater permit standards for the treated effluent they release into the Back and Patapsco rivers, but have not been meeting many of the requirements for at least the past year.
Among the findings from those inspections,
At Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant:
- Of the 76 certified operators at the plant, only two of them have permanent licenses to operate the plant.
- The plant consistently exceeded the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus, and suspended solids it was permitted to release into Baltimore waterways from at least Aug. 2020 to May 2021. Sometimes the amount exceeded the permitted values by more than 400%.
- The plant’s primary centrifuge, which is used to separate solids from liquid wastewater, failed sometime before Jan. 2021. This could have been prevented with regular maintenance. The plant is now using portable centrifuges to process solids leading to a backlog of sludge throughout the system, which is causing suspended solids and phosphorus violations.
- High levels of E. coli concentrations were found in select samples.
- Plant operators failed to conduct required annual laboratory tests for toxic chemicals.
- Operators failed to report effluent pollution violations.
- Operators also failed to conduct preventative maintenance on equipment.
At the Patapsco Wastewater Treatment Plant:
- The plant exceeded its total nitrogen pollution load for 2020 by 139,900 pounds and total phosphorus load by 47,800 pounds.
- A sample showed high concentrations of Enterococci in the partially treated wastewater flowing into the Patapsco River. The bacteria can cause urinary tract infections, diverticulitis, meningitis, and other health issues in humans.
- The plant failed to comply with a 2017 plan to mitigate fats, oils, and grease by not upgrading pump and scum removal systems for primary settling tanks. During the inspection, MDE found only 5 of the plant’s 18 settling tanks were in operation. Preventative maintenance has also failed to take place on these systems.
- Screening units were filled with trash and debris that prevented them from working properly.
- Plant managers have been unable to access or obtain parts to fix broken elements of the system.
- Effluent samples required by the Clean Water Act have been mishandled, including toxic chemical samples, to the point where reportable data can’t be obtained from them.
- DPW did not notify MDE that the plant was bypassing enhanced nutrient removal filters designed to remove nitrogen from wastewater.
These problems have resulted in significant quantities of unaccounted pollutants reaching the Chesapeake Bay, as well as potentially putting the health of recreational users of the Baltimore Harbor and nearby waterways at risk. In the Bay, nitrogen and phosphorus fuel harmful algal blooms that create dead zones inhospitable to marine life. The blooms also cloud the water and can prevent the growth of beneficial underwater grasses.
MDE’s Phase III Watershed Implementation Plan, which is the state’s plan to reach pollution reduction goals laid out in the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint, calls for the most significant reductions of nitrogen and phosphorus pollutants to come from upgrading wastewater treatment plants.
In response to the ongoing issues at the Baltimore wastewater treatment plants, CBF’s Maryland Executive Director Josh Kurtz issued the following statement:
“Marylanders depend on government agencies to be transparent and accountable when problems arise. In this case, it appears Baltimore’s Department of Public Works failed for years to address known problems at the city’s two wastewater plants, which led to months of partially treated wastewater flowing into the Baltimore Harbor and Chesapeake Bay during the previous year. Neither DPW nor Maryland Department of the Environment, the agency tasked with enforcing state pollution regulations, publicly addressed these ongoing issues at the plants until the nonprofit Blue Water Baltimore issued their findings in a news release.
“This is a dereliction of government responsibility to the citizens of Baltimore and Maryland. We urge MDE to take swift enforcement action and DPW to quickly rectify the issues at the plants.
“MDE has chosen to rely largely on taxpayer funded upgrades to wastewater treatment plants to meet its pollution reduction obligations under the Chesapeake Bay Blueprint, while allowing stormwater loads of nutrients and sediment to increase over time. With such a heavy reliance on these upgrades, the state must prioritize oversight of these facilities to ensure proper operation and impose penalties for violations. The Back River and Patapsco wastewater treatment plants are the two largest in the state, therefore these failures can reverse the progress we’ve made cleaning up the Bay.
“Both plants serve and discharge into rivers and streams where underserved and frontline community members live. These communities have suffered from a legacy of disproportionate impacts of dangerously high levels of pollution, especially harmful bacteria. It is the responsibility of both government agencies to ensure that these problems are addressed swiftly and these communities can enjoy the benefits of clean water, just like those in more affluent areas of the city and state.”
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