Nearly two years after state environmental regulators intervened in operations of Baltimore’s troubled Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant, city officials outsourced a core part of the facility’s operation to a private contractor.

The $50 million agreement with a subsidiary of the multinational engineering firm Jacobs Solutions was authorized by Department of Public Works officials on an emergency basis in September but wasn’t scheduled to go before the city’s spending board until Wednesday. The agreement extends five years — a period the meeting agenda calls the “minimum timeframe” needed — and includes options to extend in one-year increments totaling up to eight years and $100 million.

Under the agreement, the contractor would supply certified staff and assume responsibility for management of biosolids at the plant, a complex stage of the waste management process that was among the contributors to the facility’s pollution problems in recent years.

Officials with Mayor Brandon Scott’s administration argued at Wednesday’s Board of Estimates meeting that the move does not amount to “privatization” of operations at the Dundalk facility.

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“If anything, it’s an investment in our staff,” said Paul Sayan, acting head for the Bureau of Water and Wastewater. Fewer than half of operators at the Back River plant have a permanent operating license, and Sayan said bringing the third-party operator on board will allow time for the city to put its own employees through certification to eventually assume full responsibility for the plant.

One of two wastewater treatment plants operated by the Department of Public Works, the Back River facility has fallen into decline in recent years, resulting in partially treated sewage flowing into Back River, an estuary that feeds into the Chesapeake Bay.

An inspection by the Maryland Department of the Environment in March of 2022 revealed extensive maintenance problems, prompting the state to intervene in the facility’s operations and take a supervisory role over the site.

Scott and public works officials have emphasized progress at the Dundalk facility since the state’s initial intervention, noting that the facility has since come into line with its environmental requirements for discharges.

In November, the city agreed to pay a hefty fine to the Maryland Department of the Environment and entered into a consent decree for operations of both Back River and the Patapsco Wastewater Treatment Plant. Two lawsuits, one by the state environmental department and another from the environmental nonprofit Blue Water Baltimore, were each dismissed with the city’s agreement to come under court oversight.

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Staffers from the contract firm, Operations Management International, began work at the Back River plant in September and took on full responsibility for the biosolids work in November.

City Administrator Faith Leach told the board Wednesday that the city first began pursuing contractor options for biosolids management at Back River a year earlier, in August of 2022, in the wake of the state’s intervention and a scathing report on the plant’s compliance problems by Maryland Environmental Service. At the time, the city was in negotiations over the terms of a consent decree and wanted to move quickly to respond to compliance concerns, opting to enter a deal without going through the typical Board of Estimates approval process.

Still, Comptroller Bill Henry questioned why the Department of Public Works didn’t bring in staffing support on a shorter-term basis, and pursue the longer, costlier contract through the conventional public bidding process. The comptroller, who sits on the spending board, wondered whether it was necessary to put the city on the hook for five years and $50 million, even in the context of consent decree negotiations.

“Why was that done rather than something shorter and less expensive that would tide the city over?” he asked.

“We needed to move with urgency,” said Leach, who noted that the Back River plant is still suffering from vacancies despite support from Operations Management International. “I don’t know that ‘tiding over’ during a period when we’re talking about severe staffing shortages and a consent decree would satisfy our regulators.”

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Leach added that there are multiple opportunities in the contract to scale down the involvement of Operations Management International. If the city decided to get out of the agreement in its first year, the contract requires a fee of $500,000, with decreasing exit penalties after the second and third years. In the final three years, termination would cost the city $169,000.

While the contract was handled on an emergency basis, Leach noted that the public works department did consider multiple candidates for the job. Two other companies in addition to Operations Management International were considered, according to a statement Tuesday from the Department of Public Works. One of the three candidates dropped out, and the city ultimately selected Operations Management International over the Pennsylvania-based Inframark.

Under the consent decree reached in November, the city must replace and repair key equipment and install signs and warning lights at both plants’ outfalls to indicate when parts of the treatment process were bypassed. It also requires the city to submit quarterly progress reports and hold public meetings demonstrating headway, while oversight of the decree is managed by third-party engineers.

Maryland Department of the Environment spokesperson Jay Apperson said in an email Tuesday that the city’s consent decree allows for the Department of Public Works to meet staffing levels by deploying contractors and has no objection to the approach.

Meeting regulatory standards for pollution discharges will remain a long-term challenge for the Dundalk plant, in part due to long-term and “severe” staffing shortages, Wednesday’s Board of Estimates agenda notes. The Department of Public Works request argues that by bringing on a third-party contractor with “delegated authority” for biosolids management, the city can ensure “higher quality” discharges from the facility.

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Operations Management International will supply 26 staffers to handle biosolids at the Back River plant, according to the Department of Public Works statement. Interim public works Director Richard Luna said after Wednesday’s hearing that the contractor support would allow current city employees would move from biosolids management to cover vacancies in another part of the operation.

Alice Volpitta, Baltimore harbor waterkeeper for Blue Water Baltimore, said her organization has broader concerns with outsourcing work at the city’s wastewater plants, a process that deprives city employees of work and tends to be far more expensive. But the Department of Public Works has turned to the private sector for support at Back River in many other instances, she noted, and shoring up the biosolids work included in the new contract is an urgent task.

“It doesn’t surprise me that contractors would be brought in at the beginning phase, because if that doesn’t go well then it’s going to go off the rails quickly,” Volpitta said.

Beyond sewage pollution, the Back River treatment plant has encountered other operations problems in the last year, including an on-site explosion last March at a building operated by a separate third-party waste processor.

“We inherited a lot of crap — pun intended,” Scott said at Wednesday’s Board of Estimates meeting. The mayor said that the shortfall in certifications at the Back River plant predates his administration, and argued the city had to bring in outside contractors to shore up plant compliance. “This is what we had to do to make this right,” he said.

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In addition to the $50 million contract for biosolids management, the Department of Public Works asked the spending board to retroactively note a one-year, $6 million extension for third-party staffing of Back River’s headworks and denitrification filter facilities, a result of sustained staffing shortages and a delay in finalizing the contractor agreement with Operations Management International. That contract extension was also authorized by public works officials on an emergency basis.

This article has been update to correct the penalties for ending the contract early. Baltimore would have to pay $169,000 during the final three years of the contract.

Adam Willis covers city government for The Banner, including the impacts of the large COVID-19 stimulus package that Baltimore received from the federal government.

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