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Advocates look for long term solutions for Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant issues

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Posted at 6:30 PM, Mar 30, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-30 19:53:32-04

ESSEX, Md (WMAR) — Now that the state is in control of a Baltimore City wastewater treatment plant, advocates are looking for long term solutions to prevent future sewage discharge violations.

“The question, first and foremost, is does this plant ever go back to the operational prerogative of Baltimore city overseeing it and I don’t think there’s anybody who wants to see that,” said Del. Robin Grammer, who represents Southeast Baltimore County.

The issue is nothing new to people who live or work on the Back River.

MORE: Sewage discharges, broken equipment prompt state takeover of city wastewater treatment plant

“If you look at the history of this plant, it’s rife with controversy. There have been several lawsuits. There have been all sorts of property rights infringements,” said Grammer.

Sewage discharges, broken equipment prompt state takeover of city wastewater treatment plant

For most Sam weaver’s life, he’s been dealing with water quality issues because of the waste water treatment plant.

“We couldn’t see down three inches. I used to tell people we had the strangest ducks in the whole world. They could swim but they had no feet because you couldn’t see them,” said Weaver.

MORE: State takes control over Baltimore City's Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant

Weaver, who owns a marina across the river from the plant, said things did start improving after a multi-million dollar state-of-the-art renovation to improve water quality in 2016.

But it didn’t last very long. Last summer, solids started showing back up in the river.

The Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) and Blue Water Baltimore later sued the city over discharge violations.

It came to a head last week, when an inspection led to the state taking control.

Scientists said what they found proves a lack of maintenance for at least a year.

“It definitely underscored that there were maintenance backlogs for quite a while,” said Doug Myers, the Maryland Senior Scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Plants were growing on top of solids in the tanks that are supposed to be removing all sediment, rendering the new equipment basically useless.

“It means there’s sediment being transferred the whole way through the discharge including to the end. So a lot of those nutrients don’t get removed from the treatment process and they are creating algae blooms and fish kills,” said Myers.

The Maryland Environmental Service (MES), which runs all state-owned treatment plants, is on site now to immediately address the equipment and operational issues to stop the illegal discharge into back river.

Doug Myers, said long term, there needs to be more maintenance funding and staff training.

“The best equipment that you can buy and install isn’t good if you’re going to not maintain it,” said Myers.

Advocates are also working to get legislation passed to prevent these issues from getting to this level again.

“We need to have more oversight. It endangers people’s lives,” said Sen. Paul Pinsky, the bill’s lead sponsor.

The bill establishes inspection and reporting requirements with penalties for noncompliance.

“For too long, we’ve had facilities that have been in noncompliance and then they actually ask for a renewal of their licenses and it gets extended without any inspection or investigation,” said Pinsky. “With this bill in place, they would have no other choice but to do more inspections, clear vetting of what they are discharging, and if they are out of compliance, tell them they need to change it.”

The senate added a small amendment to the bill Wednesday, and Pinsky is hoping to get it finalized in the next 24 hours and them sent to the governor for his signature.

According to MDE, MES management has been inspecting the facility and meeting with Baltimore City management and staff at the Back River WWTP. The MES team is developing a plan and mobilizing staff to begin work.

The approach is: to identify solutions for problems that should quickly improve the operation of the plant; to work with the city’s plant management on improving operations and maintenance, both short term and long term; and to undertake a comprehensive assessment of the plant’s operation, maintenance, staffing, and equipment for a report in June.