An explosion and fire damaged a contractor facility on the site of the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant in Dundalk, the Baltimore County Fire Department said.
Multiple fires occurred in a building used by contractor Synagro to convert waste into agricultural pellets, which housed 12,000 gallons of thermal oil, according to county fire department spokesperson Elise Armacost. As of mid-afternoon Wednesday, the fires were still burning, and the fire department will likely maintain a presence at the scene for much of the day, she said.
Seven employees were inside the building when the explosion occurred, but all have been accounted for, Armacost said at a press conference outside the plant. Some immediately left the building, and others were helped out by firefighters. No injuries were reported.
The gas-fed flames destabilized the building, and firefighters initially vacated the structure after ensuring no one else was inside.
Following an engineering assessment, crews went back inside to “deal with the fire, prevent its extension, and get that completely out,” Armacost said.
The fire was brought under control by 3 p.m., the department said.
Much of the thermal oil inside the building is contained inside tanks, while the remainder is being allowed to burn off, Armacost said, adding that the Maryland Department of the Environment has confirmed “there is no impact on the community.”
“It’s too early to know what caused this incident,” she said.
Jay Apperson, deputy director of communication with the Maryland Department of the Environment, said in a statement: “MDE is in contact with Baltimore City DPW and is onsite at the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant to assess the situation and will provide information as it becomes available.”
The Baltimore City Department of Public Works said the fire did not impact its ability to treat wastewater at the plant.
In a joint statement, the nonprofit Blue Water Baltimore and the Chesapeake Legal Alliance said the process of handling solid waste, like what occurs in the Synagro building, has “been noted as a potential safety hazard in Maryland Department of the Environment inspection reports.” They pointed to a June 2022 report from the Maryland Environmental Service, which found the quality of the water supplied from the plant to Synagro’s fire suppression system contained too much solid material and clogged their equipment, forcing the company to shut down operations for several months.
“This had a significant adverse effect on the ability of the facility to meet its discharge permit,” state officials said in the report.
In December 2021, the organizations filed a complaint against Baltimore City, whose public works department runs the Dundalk facility, alleging the Black River plant and the Patapsco Wastewater Treatment Plant were in violation of the Clean Water Act.
“The City’s failure to operate the wastewater treatment plants in accordance with the law puts public health at risk, degrades ecosystems, and hinders the public’s ability to enjoy and recreate in local waterways,” Angela Haren, senior attorney for Chesapeake Legal Alliance, said at the time. “Our clients have filed a complaint to ensure these illegal discharges are corrected immediately.”
On Wednesday, the organizations said the incident underscores the importance of bringing the facility into compliance with federal environmental standards.
“Our organizations have been raising alarms for nearly two years about conditions at the Back River and Patapsco Wastewater Treatment Plants, which pose a threat not only to the environment and to nearby residents, but to the workers at the plants as well,” the groups said.
State regulators took control of the plant a year ago in March 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.
In June, the Maryland Environmental Service reported “catastrophic failures” at Back River had resulted in sewage discharges above and beyond its permitted limits.
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.
“DPW looks forward to building on eight months of momentum and remains committed to protecting the health and safety of Baltimore City’s waterways,” DPW Director Jason Mitchell said.
Maryland state lawmakers are working to create a task force to study how the Baltimore region’s water and sewer system are governed and operated. The system serves both the city and the county and is operated by the city, under an agreement that dates to the 1970s.
Aman Azhar of Inside Climate News contributed to this report.