Operations have been suspended at a contractor facility at the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant that converts solid waste into fertilizer, days after the building was damaged by an explosion and fire, the Baltimore City Department of Public Works announced Friday.
The facility, operated by the company Synagro, is responsible for receiving around 70% of the solids that are separated from the wastewater at the treatment plant, according to a June 2022 report from the Maryland Environmental Service.
Handling solids and biosolids is an important part of the water treatment process, and with Synagro’s operations suspended, the treatment plant will have to figure out other ways to manage those materials, according to experts from environmental groups.
“We are very concerned about Synagro not being able to functionally operate at the wastewater treatment because it means that there’s going to have to be an alternative method of dealing with the biosolids that are otherwise just going to start accumulating,” said Alice Volpitta, the Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper at Blue Water Baltimore.
As Doug Myers, Maryland senior scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, observed, “The waste keeps flowing, whether things are working at the plant or not.”
Volpitta cited an instance at the Patapsco Wastewater Treatment Plant where an issue processing sewage sludge meant that, at one point, the plant instead stored the slurry in piles on their site.
Some of that sludge had overflowed onto a roadway, an April 2022 Maryland Department of the Environment inspection report found, and was at risk of entering the water through storm drains.
Though workers at the facility had covered the drains with cloth and gravel, “this will not prevent pathogenic bacteria from untreated sewage sludge entering the waters of the State,” the inspection report said.
That’s just one example of a problem that could occur should Back River not have an alternative plan for managing solids previously processed by Synagro, Volpitta said.
Asked about a contingency plan, DPW spokesperson Jennifer Combs said in a statement Monday that the agency will use its “internal capacity” to continue processing sludge from the plant. Synagro, she added, will support those efforts while its facility is repaired.
Jay Apperson, deputy director of communication with the Maryland Department of the Environment, did not respond to a request for comment.
“Our team is working diligently with Synagro to assess the situation and develop a plan for getting this facility back online,” DPW Director Jason W. Mitchell said in a Friday press release. “We understand the critical importance of this facility to our community and the surrounding area and will do everything in our power to restore operations as quickly and safely as possible.”
In December 2021, Blue Water Baltimore and the Chesapeake Legal Alliance filed a complaint against the city alleging both the Back River and Patapsco plants were in violation of the Clean Water Act.
State regulators took control of the Back River plant nearly a year ago after multiple permit violations and regular sewage discharges were reported and the city failed to act on an order from Maryland Department of the Environment to stop them.
Last June, the Maryland Environmental Service reported “catastrophic failures” at Back River had resulted in sewage discharges above and beyond acceptable levels.
Since taking control, state officials have overseen maintenance and repairs at the site. According to the most recent report, “there has been some measured progress” in bringing the facility back into compliance.
The city and state agreed in October to extend a consent decree allowing state officials to continue running the plant through the end of the year. DPW announced in January the agreement had been extended again through April 30.
Following Wednesday’s explosion, Blue Water Baltimore and Chesapeake Legal Alliance cited a June 2022 report from the Maryland Environmental Service, which found a previous shutdown at the Synagro had a “significant adverse effect on the ability of the facility to meet its discharge permit.”
The water supplied from the plant to Synagro’s fire suppression system contained too much solid material and clogged their equipment, forcing the facility to shut down operations for several months, according to the report.
Federal and city officials are investigating the cause of Wednesday’s explosion, DPW said, which caused extensive damage to Synagro’s building.
Seven employees were inside when the explosion occurred, but all managed to get out of the building without being injured, Baltimore County Fire Department spokesperson Elise Armacost said at a press conference Wednesday.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, Baltimore City Police Department and Baltimore City Fire Department are now investigating the blast.
“We’re grateful to the first responders who arrived quickly and worked tirelessly to contain the fire and prevent any further damage,” Mitchell said. “Our top priority is to determine the cause of the fire and assess the extent of the damage, so we can get the building back up and running as soon as possible.”