Toxic releases from industrial facilities compound Maryland’s water woes, new report finds

Published on: September 30, 2022 at 6:00 am EDT

Updated on: September 30, 2022 at 9:15 am EDT

Wastewater at Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant near Baltimore.

With Baltimore’s troubled wastewater treatment plants polluting the Chesapeake Bay and city officials still investigating a recent E. coli outbreak in West Baltimore’s drinking water, a new report catalogs numerous toxic chemicals released into Maryland waterways by industrial facilities.

Those plants dumped at least 94,000 pounds of toxic chemicals, including the cancer-causing “forever chemicals” known as PFAS, into the state’s rivers and watersheds in 2020, according to the report released this week by the Baltimore-based nonprofit Maryland PIRG Foundation.

The report is based on an analysis of data self-reported by the industrial facilities for 2020 and logged with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory (TRI). The inventory only captures a portion of such releases, the report said, with the actual volume of toxic substances believed to be even higher.

Maryland was among the states with the highest amount of toxic chemical discharges by weight in 2020. Nitrate compounds, which contribute to algal blooms and formation of oxygen-depleted dead zones in Chesapeake Bay, accounted for more than 90% of all toxic releases by weight, the report said, with animal processing plants and petroleum refiners representing the largest sources of nitrates.

The analysis also found that Maryland, Pennsylvania and Delaware polluters dumped a total of 6.2 million pounds of toxic chemicals into the Brandywine-Christina Watershed, the third-highest volume discharged into any watershed in the country. The watershed is shared by neighboring Delaware and Pennsylvania and meanders through Maryland’s Cecil County.

The facility that released the most toxic chemicals in Maryland was Grace Davison-Curtis Bay Works in East Baltimore’s industrial area, which emitted 79,000 pounds of chemicals into the Gunpowder-Patapsco watershed, the report said. The plant, also known as W.R. Grace-Davison, released 59,023 pounds of nitrates, 19,536 pounds of ammonia, and an estimated 250 pounds each of molybdenum trioxide and nickel/nickel compounds in 2020.

The plant produces fluid cracking catalyst, hydroprocessing catalyst, polyolefin catalyst, and silicas/adsorbents. It supplies products to petroleum refiners, plastic manufacturers and for a wide range of industrial applications and everyday items, from toothpaste to gasoline to cans and bottles. Grace Davison-Curtis Bay Works has been the subject of several regulatory actions since 2002, according to the EPA.

Across the United States, industrial facilities released at least 193.6 million pounds of toxic substances into the nation’s waterways in 2020, “including chemicals known to cause cancer, reproductive problems and developmental issues in children,” the report said.

Painting a troubling picture of Maryland’s waterways, the report was released just weeks before the 50th anniversary of the federal Clean Water Act on Oct. 18. “These high volumes stand in stark contrast to the Clean Water Act’s stated objective of eliminating direct discharges of pollution by 1985,” the report said.

The PIRG report recommended several steps to stem the tide of toxic pollution into protected waterways, including requiring industry to switch from toxic chemicals to safer alternatives.

“The EPA should move quickly to update pollution control standards in order to end or at least dramatically reduce toxic releases into our waterways,” the report said, including those for meat and poultry processing plants, power plants, and all industrial dischargers of PFAS chemicals.

Breaking News Alerts
Get notified of need-to-know
info from The Banner

“Polluters should not be able to use Maryland’s waters as a dumping ground,” said Emily Scarr, Maryland PIRG director.

John Rumpler, clean water program director of Environment America, a Denver-based nonprofit, said the Chesapeake Bay watershed has been plagued by pollution for quite some time, with the effects from climate change exacerbating the problem.

“When we see that polluters are dumping nearly 200 million pounds of toxic substances directly into our waterways, it is clear that the goal of the Clean Water Act has not been fulfilled,” he said.

The PIRG report said that companies were exempt from reporting many PFAS chemicals until 2020. Short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, PFAS refers to a group of more than 4,000 chemicals found in cleaning products, paints, cookware, food packaging and firefighting foams.

Several studies have linked PFAS exposure to cancer, thyroid disruption and reduced vaccine response. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 95% of the U.S. population has PFAS in their bodies.

In January 2022, three national advocacy organizations represented by the nonprofit Earthjustice sued EPA to force the agency to close “illegal loopholes” that allowed chemical plants and military bases across the U.S. to avoid reporting their PFAS emissions.

In June, the EPA announced new drinking water health advisories for PFAS chemicals and invited states to apply for $1 billion in grant funding from the Biden administration’s infrastructure legislation to address PFAS and other emerging contaminants in drinking water.

Last week, the EPA announced it was providing $144 million in funds under the infrastructure bill for improvements to Maryland’s aging water infrastructure and to address emerging contaminants. The Maryland Department of the Environment said it is prepared to use the PFAS-specific infrastructure funding to reduce the risk of exposure and is “examining the best course for Maryland to take in the future regulation of these chemicals, including the possibility of proceeding ahead of the EPA in establishing an enforceable Maximum Contaminant Level for PFAS in drinking water.”

But the agency has yet to respond to the calls to step up efforts to address chronic staff shortages, address the backlog of expired permits, and take enforcement actions to bring industrial facilities discharging contaminants above permitted limits into compliance, as required under a new Maryland law.

“Almost no one is probably aware that the Clean Water Act was originally intended — by a nearly unanimous margin in Congress — to fully eliminate water pollution or to at least reduce it enough to meet water quality standards,” said Evan Isaacson, senior attorney at the nonprofit Chesapeake Legal Alliance. “We haven’t even come close to that interim goal.”

He lamented that state agencies cannot even get the most basic sewage pollution problems under control despite the heightened national focus on restoring the Bay.

The EPA Toxic Release Inventory shows how much hazardous pollution is being discharged all around us — much of which is legally permitted, Isaacson said. “If anyone is surprised by the amount of pollution being released to the environment every year, that is probably because they don’t live in a fence-line community,” he said, referring to neighborhoods, often low-income or populated primarily by people of color, that border polluting facilities.

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.

This story is published in partnership with Inside Climate News, a nonprofit, independent news organization that covers climate, energy and the environment. Sign up for the ICN newsletter here.

Read more: