Baltimore seeks judicial review of state takeover of city’s sewage treatment plant

The City of Baltimore on Friday filed a lawsuit seeking judicial review of the recent state takeover of the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant, the site of ongoing illegal discharges into the river.

This is a recent state order from Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles requiring the city-owned sewage treatment plant to immediately cease illegal discharges of water pollution into the river. within 48 hours. City officials called the delay arbitrary and “impossible,” making the state order illegal.

When the plant failed to come into compliance within two days, Grumbles announced that the Maryland Environmental Service would temporarily take control of the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant to oversee its operation and maintenance and ensure that the city operates in accordance with all the terms of its release. permit.

The Back River and Patapsco sewage treatment plants are already the subject of lawsuits in state court filed by Attorney General Brian Frosh on behalf of the state Department of Environment and in federal court. by Blue Water Baltimore, a nonprofit water advocacy organization, for wastewater discharges under the Clean Water Act.

The Back River plant, the largest in the state and located in Dundalk, is limited to discharging up to 180 million gallons of treated wastewater into the Back River, a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay, under of his license. The plant has routinely exceeded that threshold, which proponents say undermines Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts. Maryland and other bay watershed states have all agreed to limit the amount of nutrients entering the bay by 2025.

When the lawsuit was filed, Alice Volpitta, Blue Water’s Port of Baltimore water guardian, said the ideal resolution was a consent decree that would bring together the Department of the Environment, the city’s Department of Public Works of Baltimore and Blue Water Baltimore to find a solution. With a consent decree comes a legally binding schedule of actions that would help bring factories back into compliance.

Last summer, Blue Water Baltimore found high levels of bacteria in the harbor near the Patapsco plant and reported to the Department of the Environment, which launched on-site inspections. Beginning in October, city and state officials began working collaboratively to end all illegal discharges from factories, but city officials pointed to staff shortages and chain issues. of supply to explain the slow progress.

City officials said they meet with state officials every two weeks to draft a consent agreement that would help bring factories back into compliance with their discharge permits. The state takeover order “caught the city off guard,” according to the court petition.

State officials knew “full well, based on months of briefings and information sharing, that there was no way the city could miraculously fix all the problems in Back River in 48 hours,” indicates the court’s request. The state order has created “confusion and threatens to delay and/or undermine the city’s efforts to improve operations at the plant,” according to city officials.

However, Grumbles argued that state action was necessary because of the ‘shocking’ inspection report completed by the Department of the Environment at the end of March, which revealed maintenance issues. , including high concentrations of solids that prevented filters intended to remove nitrogen from working and hampered the plant’s ability to treat wastewater.

At a meeting of the Baltimore City Senate delegation on Friday morning, Grumbles said the report had several shortcomings. “All the warning signals went off,” he said.

Untreated sewage discharges are harmful because they pollute waterways with excess nutrients that disrupt ecosystems and fuel harmful algal blooms. Algae can block sunlight and take away much of the oxygen in the water. With less sunlight and oxygen, plants and animals struggle to survive in a “dead zone”.

But Jason Mitchell, the director of the Baltimore City Department of Public Works, disputed the state inspection, which reported seeing “dark gray sewage.” Mitchell said the water was only dark because it was inspected on a cloudy day and claimed the Back River effluent was “as clear as your normal drinking water.”

Grumbles said at the delegation meeting that while working toward a consent decree, the state could not agree to Baltimore’s timeline for bringing the plant back into compliance. But Mitchell said it was the first time he had heard that Baltimore’s proposed timeline was too long and that he hadn’t received an official response from MDE regarding his strategic plan.

Baltimore spent $10 million more than originally planned to quickly resolve the issues at Back River, according to the court’s motion. But Grumbles’ state order requires the Maryland Environmental Service to develop the same type of plan at the same time, Mitchell told senators. “DPW continues to not understand why we are duplicating this money,” Mitchell said. The factory still does not have a full staff, he said.

Mitchell also claimed the city started asking the state for help “months ago” and was surprised at the quick decision to step in and take over the plant only now.

When Sen. Mary Washington (D-Baltimore City) asked Grumbles why the Department of the Environment didn’t offer help when the city asked for it “months ago,” Grumbles said the The state should not “hire people to help them”, but rather “insist that they manage the installation so that it works as intended.”

Washington asked how many on-site inspections the state has conducted outside of Baltimore, pointing out that the Department of the Environment is notorious for allowing facilities to operate under so-called “zombie permits” or discharge permits. expired. The department has a backlog of more than 200 zombie permits, and state lawmakers passed a bill this legislative session to increase oversight of facilities operating with expired permits.

“We want the processes to be fair, when the state takes control of a facility, which gets to a level where they absolutely have to say there’s fairness in the whole system and there’s been an opportunity corrective action,” Washington said. “This model has a selection and choice model of application activities.”

After hearing from both sides at the delegation meeting, Senate Speaker Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) said “something is not quite right.”

“Looks like on one side of town…there had been conversations going on [with the Department of the Environment] and then all of a sudden a two-day order came out that was seemingly impossible to keep and then all of a sudden there was a takeover,” he said.

In a statement Friday afternoon, Grumbles said the “urgency and gravity of the situation” required immediate action.

“The most effective way to change the slow discussions was to post the order, which allowed us to temporarily bring in additional support and expertise from the Maryland Environmental Service,” Grumbles said. “We look forward to real progress and constructive engagement with the city.”