‘Catastrophic failures’ at wastewater treatment plant have triggered a state takeover, a lawsuit and outrage

Published on: July 04, 2022 6:00 AM EDT

The two digesters at the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant near Baltimore.

This article originally appeared on Inside Climate News. It is republished with permission. Sign up for their newsletter here.

Sara Bundy, her husband and 12-year-old son moved to Sparrows Point near the Back River in Baltimore County four years ago for the allure of a waterfront home.

“We are a boating family. We love to fish and kayak and our lives are very much based around water,” said Bundy, 43, who owns a dog walking and pet sitting business. “So, when we came across this waterfront home, it was perfect for us.”

It wasn’t until her son, Atlas, suffered a serious ear infection last September that she realized that the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant, owned and operated by Baltimore City, was dumping large quantities of untreated sewage and pollutants into the river, a tributary to the Chesapeake Bay.

Bundy now finds herself embroiled in a federal lawsuit filed against Baltimore City in December by Blue Water Baltimore, an environmental nonprofit, asking the court to order city managers to fix both Back River and Baltimore’s other failing wastewater treatment plant, Patapsco.

The mismanagement and disrepair at Back River became so bad that state environmental officials took over operation of the plant in March and reported last month that “catastrophic failures” had resulted in sewage discharges above and beyond its permitted limits. The city responded last week that it was working with state regulators to remedy the situation at Patapsco and Back River, the largest wastewater treatment facility in Maryland.

The Back River plant, a mile south of Bundy’s riverfront home, has become notorious for numerous permit violations and frequent sewage discharges leaking from its aging and faulty pipes and treatment tanks, pouring excess nutrients and contaminants into the Back River, one of the most polluted rivers in Maryland.

Excess nitrogen and phosphorus can cause toxic algae blooms that often lead to respiratory and eye irritation in humans and kill fish, marine mammals and other wildlife, and emanate from agriculture and fossil fuel combustion, as well as human sewage.

Bundy, describing her son’s ear infection, said that the family wasn’t “aware at the time that there was something going on with the wastewater treatment plant.”

“My son, 11 at the time, went swimming in the river the way he had done many times before,” Bundy said. “He got the infection almost immediately after the swim and it was so bad that he would lay in my lap at night and cry because he was in so much pain.” It took four weeks and three visits to a specialist, she added, to get the infection under control.

Bundy said a neighbor messaged her after she posted about her son’s ordeal on Facebook. “She told me none of the neighbors swim in the water. I was outraged,” she said. “How could they do that and not notify the public about the risks it could pose to our health and hygiene?”

The incident led Bundy and her husband to join the Back River Restoration Committee, a local nonprofit dedicated to cleaning up trash around Back River, monitoring bacteria in the waters and sharing the information with the community as a precaution.

In December last year, Bundy was one of the three residents who submitted a sworn affidavit in support of a federal lawsuit filed by Blue Water Baltimore citing both of Baltimore City’s wastewater treatment plants for failing to contain excessive pollution and committing ongoing violations of the federal Clean Water Act.

“I wanted the city to understand the effect their poor management has had on the community,” said Bundy. “It’s not just gross that they’re dumping sewage but it actually affects human health and the environment.”

The litigation was temporarily paused last winter to allow the state and city to negotiate a settlement aimed at fixing myriad problems at both plants. But after four months of unsuccessful negotiations, the nonprofit group asked the court in April to proceed with the case.

“We can’t wait any longer,” said Alice Volpitta, Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper at Blue Water Baltimore. “The latest reports show that the pollution is getting worse, and after four months of negotiation we still don’t have the information necessary to develop a settlement agreement. We’re moving forward with our case because the city must be held accountable to the public for a transparent solution.”

The directive issued by the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) taking over operation of Back River came after Baltimore City failed to act on a previous MDE order to immediately end illegal discharges of water pollution at the plant, the agency said in a statement. The MDE concluded that the plant was in such disrepair that it risked “catastrophic failures that may result in environmental harm as well as adverse public health and comfort effects.”

The takeover came despite significant investments by the state in both plants, the MDE said last fall in a letter to Baltimore Mayor Brandon M. Scott. Back River received $437.5 million and Patapsco received $215.2 million in state taxpayer funds for “enhanced nutrient removal,” in addition to $203 million from a state revolving fund and $127 million from Baltimore taxpayers, for investments totaling $982.8 million.

Still, the department said in the letter, “MDE is extremely concerned that effluent violations for nutrients and solids continue to directly and negatively impact the health of Patapsco River and Chesapeake Bay.” The department also noted that nitrogen pollution from both plants had increased 68 percent in fiscal 2021.

The MDE added that the city is estimated to receive more than $641 million in funds under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, and concluded its letter to Mayor Scott by saying: “The citizens of Maryland need to be reassured that Baltimore City is committed to cleaning up the Bay.”

On June 6, the Maryland Environmental Service, which runs all state-owned wastewater treatment facilities and was put in charge of running Back River, produced a blistering 72-page report listing a host of management and systemwide “catastrophic failures” that were causing the facility to malfunction and discharge unpermitted sewage.

The evaluation found that the facility’s equipment for filtering and treating sewage with bacteria and chlorine was either faulty or simply out of commission. “Pumps are plugged with trash, drains are clogged, and floors are covered with water or sludge,” the assessment found. It added that the lack of maintenance or funding for repairs caused the staff to find unnecessary workarounds to keep the plant operating.

“The state of disrepair is the result of years of neglect that will take time and dedication to correct,” the evaluation said. MES evaluators reported “a lack of accountability, organization, planning, communication, and teamwork,” with little or no staff training to improve skill sets, which led to serious concerns for workers’ safety.

The staff across various departments were openly unwilling to cooperate, evaluators wrote, and hostility existed between the maintenance and operation groups. “Visible animosity between area managers and supervisors has been witnessed and the lack of teamwork and communication between the various area supervisors has resulted in process upsets and disruption to planned activities,” the report said.

The assessment listed unprofessional behaviors, including sleeping on the job, as well as verbal and physical altercations between staff at all levels. “MES has witnessed city staff washing personal vehicles during the workday and they have admitted to receiving payment or free lunch for services provided,” the agency reported.

High turnover rate and the inability to retain mid-level managers resulted in staff shortages and low team morale, leading to bad management control and poor execution of tasks. “The violations occurring at the Back River WWTP have evolved into a situation where this is now equivalent to an extreme event,” MES noted, and recommended that these issues need to be addressed on an emergency basis.

As a result of these systemic failures, the plant was consistently discharging excessive pollutants in Bay River, including phosphorus and nitrogen, causing pollution levels to spike.

Last month, the Chesapeake Bay Program reported that Maryland’s wastewater treatment facilities contributed significantly more nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in the bay last year that could jeopardize the efforts to reduce sediments and nutrient levels to meet goals set for the Chesapeake Bay by 2025.

“It’s clear the lack of enforcement of the Clean Water Act is threatening our goals for a clean and healthy bay. There was an increase of about 2.8 million pounds of nitrogen pollution into the Bay from sewage plants,” said Angela Haren, a senior attorney with the Chesapeake Legal Alliance, which filed the lawsuit against Baltimore for conditions at both its wastewater treatment plants on behalf of Blue Water Baltimore.

Following MES’s report, the Chesapeake Legal Alliance asked the federal court last month to issue a special order directing city authorities to immediately fix the health and safety issues at its two wastewater treatment plants and to post health advisory signs at water recreation areas impacted by the plants.

“The amount of pollution coming from these two wastewater treatment plants is enough to jeopardize the whole state’s goals under the Chesapeake Bay agreement, for the reduction of nitrogen, for example,” said Haren.

The Patapsco treatment plant already exceeded its pollution limit for nitrogen by over a million pounds, she said, adding that as of today, the facility is already beyond its limit for 2022. “It means that for every single day for the rest of the year, it’s going to be in violation over its permitted limit just to put it in scale.”

Situated on the Patapsco River south of downtown Baltimore, the facility serves Baltimore City, as well as Baltimore, Howard, and Anne Arundel counties.

Haren said that the court’s immediate intervention was necessary because the city is yet to demonstrate a sense of urgency in ending its pollution problems. “We’re seeing the city’s utter lack of action. And the discharge monitoring reports speak for themselves, particularly at Patapsco plant, where concentration of nitrogen is higher now than when we brought this lawsuit,” she added.

But the city authorities are adamant the situation does not warrant the court’s intervention. In a 36-page response filed with the court on June 26, Baltimore City maintained that the city agencies are already working with state regulators.

MDE and the city recently reached an agreement that requires the city to cooperate with MES to control water pollution and to ensure that the Back River facility is operated in a manner that will protect public health. MDE is pursuing a similar agreement over the Patapsco treatment plant, which is in similarly bad shape, to take corrective actions and bring the facility into compliance.

“There is absolutely no need or justification for the Court to inject itself and [Blue Water Baltimore] into the State and City’s process for restoring these plants to full compliance in the very near future (Back River) and over the next couple of months (Patapsco),” the city maintained. Asserting that “there have been no harmful algal blooms, no fish kills, and no swimmer illness,” the city said that no such harms can be attributed to the city’s treatment plants.

“I’m not surprised at all,” said Bundy, responding to the city’s assertions. “If you look at the state of the city right now, it is completely imploding on itself because the leadership is so corrupt and they refuse to admit that there’s a problem because they don’t want to fix it.”

Bundy said that both the Back River Restoration Committee and the state of Maryland have water samples that show the presence of bacteria in Back River that only comes from the human intestine. “They can deny all they want but the facts are facts,” she said. “And they’re also looking at a federal lawsuit. So, they can answer to the judge on that.”

Aman Azhar is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist who covers environmental justice for Inside Climate News with a focus on the Baltimore-Maryland area.

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