In one of his most viral videos to date, with more than 3 million views on Instagram and close to a million on TikTok, Baltimore crabber and social media influencer Luke McFadden addresses the camera while standing on his boat in the Chesapeake Bay.

“Every time it rains in Maryland, at least where I’m at, we have garbage like this tire that washes down from places like the Conowingo Dam,” McFadden says.

Using his reach pole, he hoists a massive rubber tire from the water and brings it aboard.

“In addition to the trash, we get this lovely brown, foamy slime on the top, which happens to be raw sewage that dumps out from the Baltimore City wastewater treatment plants,” he says.

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McFadden then gestures toward the water, where there is indeed a dark layer of sludge instead of a pale blue hue that one might expect.

“The issue we have here in the Chesapeake Bay is a water-quality issue,” he says. “You can catch and throw back as many of whatever it is you want, but nothing is gonna live in a stagnant puddle — not one that gets sewage dumped in it every time it rains.”

Posted to Instagram and TikTok just two months after Baltimore settled a $4.75 million lawsuit for violations at its two wastewater treatment plants, the Jan. 21 video combined for more than 4,500 comments on both platforms.

“Your city tax dollars at work,” one comment read.

“It does stink at the harbor when it rains,” another said.

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The reality is sewage is supposed to enter the Chesapeake Bay through the Back and Patapsco Rivers, but only after it’s been properly treated by the plants, which happen to be the largest in Maryland.

And, as for “raw sewage,” experts say that’s not exactly the case.

“That’s kind of a misconception — it’s still sewage, but it’s partially treated a lot of times because there is such an influx of rain,” Desiree Greaver, project manager for the Back River Restoration Committee, told Capital News Service. “We have these rain events where there’s tons of rain, and the plant can’t handle it, so they’ll skip certain steps.”

Wastewater at Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant near Baltimore.
Wastewater at Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant near Baltimore. (Kristian Bjornard/Wikimedia Commons)

For Greaver, the effects that skipping steps have had on the bay did not become clear until March 2021, when the BRRC received a call from a concerned city resident.

“We got a call on a Friday evening from a gentleman that said, ‘You’re not going to believe the stuff I see. There is solid waste all over the river,’” Greaver said. “The only thing I knew was to call Alice [Volpitta] that evening.”

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Volpitta is the Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper for Blue Water Baltimore, a nonprofit dedicated to restoring the quality of the city’s rivers, streams and harbor.

As one of 17 waterkeepers in the Chesapeake Bay region, Volpitta advocates for clean water in the city’s two rivers, seeking to amplify the voices of citizens who live near them. She’s held the job since leaving the Maryland Department of Natural Resources in 2014.

“There’s one facility in the Patapsco River and there’s one in the Back River, and both of them failed at the same time. So it was kind of like a perfect storm, specifically for a waterkeeper to get involved here,” Volpitta said.

Volpitta said, in a perfect situation, the wastewater treatment plants would be treating only sewage and not rainwater, but the sewer pipes are old and leaky. Because of this, rainwater infiltrates and creates an excess volume at the plants, and this phenomenon has caused sewage to rise from city manholes and through residents’ basements and toilets.

Fast forward to May 2021. Blue Water Baltimore twice detected high levels of bacteria at the Patapsco plant’s discharge pipe, prompting Volpitta to notify the Maryland Department of the Environment.

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In the following days, inspections by officials from MDE found a large fish kill in the bay, as well as trees growing in the plants’ outdoor settling tanks, which are designed to reduce overflow during periods of heavy rain.

How do they reduce overflow? By holding the excess water.

“Those trees don’t just happen, which is a big concern,” Greaver said. “Those trees had root systems that took far longer than seven months to develop.”

Failing its inspection, the Patapsco plant was cited for having “insufficient maintenance and operational staff” and several “equipment failures.” A system that was installed to remove nitrogen was being bypassed altogether, and MDE found floating solids near the discharge pipe to be a result of several procedural violations.

MDE also determined that the plant exceeded its permitted limit on nitrogen and phosphorus releases in 2020, and that it failed to comply with a 2016 consent order aimed at reducing outputs of fats and oils.

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Three months later, at the end of August 2021, the Back River treatment plant failed an MDE inspection that was prompted by the findings at the Patapsco plant. Finding similar operational and maintenance issues, MDE was authorized by state law to assess fines of up to $10,000 per day.

For Blue Water Baltimore, the next step was to, along with Chesapeake Legal Alliance, file a $4.75 million lawsuit in December 2021 against the city.

The Clean Water Act requires a 60-day notice period, allowing the plants to come into compliance and avoid litigation. The facilities failed to do so.

The city did not settle the lawsuit until last November, and only after the Maryland Environmental Service temporarily assumed control of supervisory operations at the Back River treatment plant on orders of then-Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles.

In March 2022, Grumbles issued a previous order for the treatment plants to prevent all illegal discharges from entering the rivers, a direct violation of the Clean Water Act.

It took the Baltimore City Department of Public Works 72 hours to fail to comply, but the city agency said it had requested MES to get involved. “The Department of Public Works has always had supervisory control of operations at the plant,” a department spokesperson told CNS on May 10.

“DPW contracted Maryland Environmental Service to manage two construction improvement projects at the plant,” the spokesperson said.

Forty percent of the city’s lawsuit settlement, which totaled $1.9 million, was diverted to the Chesapeake Bay Trust, which is responsible for awarding those funds to grant projects aimed at restoring the Back River and Patapsco watersheds.

But awarding grant money isn’t a simple process, according to Chesapeake Bay Trust President Jana Davis. Grant recipients are selected from a lengthy list of applicants by a review committee, and the process takes months.

“We use principles of participatory thinking, which is just a fancy term for working with communities to really understand what they need before we say, ‘Hey, here’s this project in your community,’” Davis told CNS. “Communities that have been impacted by events like this don’t always have a say in how money gets reinvested back to them.”

Davis said the Chesapeake Bay Trust aims to finalize its grant recipients by late fall. As for the projects themselves, many are expected to start being implemented right away. Others may have to be postponed until next spring.

“We hope that all of the grantees will be well on their way to sort of completing a project within a two-year period from fall 2024 to, say, fall 2026,” Davis said.

Greaver’s Back River Restoration Committee is one of many environmental organizations applying to use a portion of the $1.9 million.

As for when the effects from the wastewater treatment plants will be reversed, that’s something Greaver thinks will take time.

“I hope that happens before I’m no longer on this Earth,” she said. “That’s the most optimistic I can be, given how there seems to be a lack of concern from the folks that own and operate the plants. Unless there’s a real change in Baltimore City, it just seems like it’s one of those things that gets brushed under the rug.”

The two digesters at the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant near Baltimore.
The two digesters at the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant near Baltimore. (Kristian Bjornard/Wikimedia Commons)

Baltimore is under two separate consent decrees to prevent sewage overflows.

The 2002 Sanitary Sewer Consent Decree was a result of the Environmental Protection Agency and MDE suing the city for discharging sewage into local waterways.

Because sewage overflows were still happening at the decree’s original expiration in 2016, a renegotiation gives the city until 2030 to prevent all sewage overflows.

This renegotiation birthed Baltimore’s Headworks Project, a $430 million investment that aims to increase holding capacity at the treatment plants while relining sewer pipes to increase water velocity. This prevents solids from settling in the sewers.

A second consent decree approved last fall is focusing on the wastewater facilities themselves, ensuring that both are in compliance with MDE regulations and functioning normally.

The Baltimore DPW is responsible for making the required changes. That agency regained control of the Dundalk plant only on May 1, 2023, after MES relinquished responsibility for supervisory operations at the direction of the Baltimore City Board of Estimates.

“Until that plant is holding every single person and every single manager and every single department and every single contractor in the fire, I feel like we’re just going to keep coming right back here,” Greaver said.