Fresh Water, Foul Sewage
Baltimore says it has corrected many sewage violations at its treatment plants
DPW attributes the release of sewage into the Chesapeake Bay to the Covid pandemic and 2019 ransomware attack and says it is working to do better
Above: Equipment at the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant. (MDE)
Following the disclosure of daily illegal discharges of millions of gallons of partially treated sewage into tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay, Baltimore officials have issued a kind of progress report.
Describing the violations cited in state inspection reports as “mostly reporting and business process concerns,” the Department of Public Works (DPW) said it has corrected 26 of the 30 violations in a press release emailed Friday evening.
The agency “has continuously met and worked closely” with the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) “to correct any reported violations and developed a strategic plan to correct the few remaining alleged violations,” according to the statement.
“DPW is committed to being good stewards of the environment,” said Jason W. Mitchell, who was named agency director earlier this year. “The root causes for the violations have been identified by DPW and will be addressed systematically to ensure we achieve 100% compliance.”
MDE officials have said they plan to file a formal enforcement action against the city and possibly impose significant fines for the violations.
They were associated with massive discharges of sewage from the Patapsco Wastewater Treatment Plant as well as the Back River plant, resulting in unacceptable levels of bacteria, phosphorus and nitrogen released into the Bay.
“The root causes for the violations. . . will be addressed systematically to ensure we achieve 100% compliance” – DPW Director Jason Mitchell.
The illegal releases came in spite of $1.6 billion in system upgrades to comply with a federal consent decree designed to end the city’s longtime practice of allowing sewage-saturated rainwater to overflow into city waterways.
Many of the violations alleged by MDE did not involve infrastructure failures but rather management issues.
They were what the reports termed “significant operational and maintenance issues,” such as bungled water sampling procedures, failure to maintain equipment and failure to test for toxic chemicals.
• Baltimore’s poor management at root of newly discovered sewage outflows into the Bay (9/1/21)
• Bad odor from a sewer system and a state agency that are failing (10/7/21)
DPW had an explanation for these in its Friday statement:
“Over the last two years, both plants have experienced severe shortages” due to “the impact of the 2019 ransomware attack on Baltimore City and the COVID-19 pandemic. These significant events have caused a strain on consistent staffing, training, and availability of parts and equipment for maintenance and repair.”
The agency “analyzed the root causes and contributing factors to any perceived non-compliance,” allowing it to draw up “a roadmap for establishing a critical plan of action, including utilizing the city’s emergency protocols and procedures to perfect its corrective action.”
Lack of Oversight
The management issues revealed at the treatment plants were a significant concern for Blue Water Baltimore, the watchdog group that detected high bacteria levels at the Patapsco plant’s effluent pipe last May and alerted MDE.
“Blue Water Baltimore has serious concerns about Baltimore City’s ability to adequately operate these two critical facilities,” Alice Volpitta, Blue Water’s Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper, said at the time.
She faulted the state and federal agencies responsible for protecting the Bay and its tributaries, saying, “The lack of oversight for significant periods of time by MDE and EPA is also troubling.”