BALTIMORE — It’s an emergency situation over at Baltimore City’s Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant.
The state is stepping in to oversee operations and stop illegal discharges after finding the problems “present an unacceptable threat to the environment and public health.”
An inspection Saturday found lots of necessary treatment equipment that were either not operational or not functioning properly because of clogs and overgrown vegetation that was leading to illegal untreated sewage discharge.
MORE: State takes control over Baltimore City's Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant
“It came to be undeniable that the problem was getting worse. Throughout the process, we have understood there need to be more certified operators. The city needs help,” said Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles.
MDE has observed extensive violations since last June. In January, they filed suit against the city to get them into compliance.
This latest push started because of what clean water advocates observed by the plant.
“It was horrific to see it firsthand,” said Desiree Greaver, project manager for the Back River Restoration Committee. “It looked like a volcano of human feces coming out of the water.”
They immediately alerted MDE, who came out and did several inspections. MDE first gave the city 48 hours to cease illegal discharge, but on Saturday, a follow-up inspection showed extensive violations once again.
“It’s frustrating that it took this long. It should have never gotten to this point,” said Greaver. “If there’s plants growing in these tanks, that doesn’t happen overnight. That’s taken a very long time and a very, very large effort of neglect.”
The Maryland Environmental Service, which runs all state-owned wastewater plants, is now operating the plant with MDE oversight to make sure illegal discharges stop. They are focusing on getting equipment back online and will also do an assessment to identify other immediate fixes.
“My sense is that over the next 30 days you’re going to see a lot of improvements of the operations and maintenance of the facility; more trained operators and staff; less vegetation growing where it shouldn’t be,” said Grumbles.
Greaver is relieved help is finally here but fears irreparable damage has already been done. The Back River Restoration Committee (BRRC) does what they can to clean up the river by removing trash, and they want the city to do theirs.
“This is the river that we are trying to save. And we’re in this water. We’re in it pulling the trash out daily,” said Greaver. “It’s so frustrating and it’s so upsetting and it’s so disheartening because I’m sure there’s wildlife in this river that will never come back. It will never be what it was.”
The unauthorized discharge of pollutants also undermines Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts by Maryland and the other bay watershed states and causes a public health risk.
Living on the river, Sara Bundy and her family frequent the water. But last summer, her son got a bad ear infection after swimming, and that’s how she got involved with restoration efforts.
“We had to see a specialist for over a month to get it under control and that is when one of my neighbors brought it to our attention that the wastewater treatment plant was dumping raw sewage into Back River,” said Bundy.
She worries about the safety of other families now that summer is almost here.
“This river affects thousands of families, not just us that live on it but Hart-Miller Island is right at the end of this river and on any given summer weekend, there’s hundreds of families swimming there and their health is at risk if this doesn’t get resolved,” said Bundy.
“They [local marinas] have hundreds of people who go out on their boats every day; spring, summer and fall. They water ski. They knee-board. They jet ski up and down the river and it’s just a shame that this disposal plant is putting out this water unknowing to the residents that it’s happening,” said BRRC President Mike Baumgartner.
Up until Sunday, Baltimore City’s Department of Public Works operated Back River, the largest wastewater treatment plant in the state.
They issued the following statement:
“We remain disappointed with MDE’s course of action, given the collaborative efforts to improve performance over several months at the Back River and Patapsco Wastewater Treatment Plants and the number of years this issue has been a problem. We welcome MDE and MES’s collaboration to bring these facilities into compliance, as we have been reaching out to MES for support for the last few months.”
Mayor Brandon Scott also addressed the MDE action:
“The Back River and Patapsco Wastewater Treatment Plants have had issues that long predate my administration. We are committed to working with the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) and the Maryland Environmental Service (MES) to get both of these facilities into compliance. This will not be an overnight fix but we must work collaboratively and combine our resources in order to ensure clean and healthy communities not just for our residents, but also for the wildlife that calls the Chesapeake Bay home.”
The BRRC has an upcoming public meeting on April 12 at 7 p.m. at Hawks Pleasure Club where experts will present more on this ongoing issue.