A Federal Judge Wants More Information on Polluting Discharges From Baltimore’s Troubled Sewage Treatment Plants

An environmental nonprofit asked for immediate fixes at the city’s Patapsco and Back River plants. Among them: signs at nearby recreation areas warning of sewage overflows.

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Baltimore Public Works Museum (formerly Sewage Pumping Station) in Little Italy on April 9, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. Credit: Raymond Boyd/Getty Images
Baltimore Public Works Museum (formerly Sewage Pumping Station) in Little Italy on April 9, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. Credit: Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

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A U.S. district court judge has asked lawyers representing an environmental group and the city of Baltimore for more information before deciding whether to order immediate repairs at the city’s Patapsco and Back River Wastewater Treatment plants, which were recently cited by the state for “catastrophic failures” resulting in sewage discharges well beyond permitted limits. 

Angela Haren, representing the environmental nonprofit, Blue Water Baltimore, called Judge Lydia Kay Griggsby’s ruling Wednesday encouraging, given ongoing problems at both plants. 

“Time and time again the City has failed to act,” said Haren, senior attorney with the Chesapeake Legal Alliance, which is representing Blue Water Baltimore. “The illegal discharges are putting public and environmental health in danger.”

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Haren said her client wants the city to take immediate steps that would prevent the discharge of sewage sludge and solids into the Patapsco and Back rivers, and fully staff both plants with qualified workers. 

“The city needs to mitigate fats, oils and grease discharges at the Patapsco plant, and, more importantly, install signs in the affected waterways notifying the public of the health risks arising from the plant effluent,” Haren said. 

Attorneys for the city have asked the court to dismiss the motion and argued previously that the city is taking necessary steps in collaboration with state agencies to address the situation at the two wastewater treatment facilities it owns and operates. 

Recent inspections at Back River and Patapsco wastewater treatment facilities have found continuing and, in some cases, worsening deficiencies and disrepair, Blue Water Baltimore said in a statement. 

The ongoing permit violations caused dangerous conditions for nearby residents and plant workers as well as consistent violations of the plants’ discharge permits, despite corrective orders from the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), Blue Water Maryland said. 

Blue Water Maryland’s motion to force corrective action by the city, filed in June, followed a damning report that month by the state agency, the Maryland Environmental Service (MES), citing “catastrophic failures.” State regulators put MES in charge of running the Back River plant. 

“The violations occurring at the Back River WWTP have evolved into a situation where this is now equivalent to an extreme event, and these issues need to be addressed on an emergency basis,” the MES said. 

The agency cited a lack of cooperation from the Baltimore Department of Public Works, and reported that ”the lack of responsiveness in addressing critical issues that need to be addressed to get the plant back in compliance keeps frustration high and is having an impact throughout the facility.” 

In addition to listing the myriad management and operational challenges at the facility, MES also recommended actions that needed to be prioritized to bring the plant back into compliance.

Meanwhile, the latest report by the Maryland Department of the Environment on the status of the Patapsco treatment facility, issued earlier this month, detected high concentration of hydrocarbons in the sludge that could cause a fire hazard and the potential for an explosion. In addition to alerting management about poorly functioning equipment, the report recommended an ongoing training program for staff operating and maintaining equipment. 

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The report said that a number of immediate actions are necessary to bring Patapsco into compliance, including making necessary repairs to failing and nonfunctional equipment and addressing the overload of solids throughout the treatment processes. 

A May inspection of the Patapsco plant by MDE had found problems at almost every stage of operation, including processing inadequacies, equipment failures and clogged and overwhelmed systems leading to ongoing violations of discharge permits.

“While long-term solutions are needed, there are immediate steps that must be taken quickly to stop the onslaught of pollution that continues to flow into our rivers,” said Alice Volpitta, of Blue Water Baltimore. “The problems at Back River have been extensively documented, and we’re now absolutely in a crisis. Every day that this continues is a step backwards for our communities’ health and for Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts.” 

In April, the nonprofit had asked the court to resume hearings after both parties failed to secure a settlement agreement despite four months of negotiation, which temporarily paused the case. The court has to decide whether to grant the injunctive relief before moving on to the federal case against the city of Baltimore. 

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