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Fresh Water, Foul Sewage

Environmentby Fern Shen10:20 amFeb 8, 20230

What’s in a name? Too much sewage, says Baltimore’s Back River community

Often ridiculed because of their proximity to the city’s poorly run treatment plant, residents want it not only taken over by a regional authority, but given a new name

Above: The long pier that covers the pipe that discharges the treated wastewater into Back River. (Mark Reutter)

Douglas Celmer is a proud Back River community leader who lives on the same Baltimore County waterway his farming family has for the last hundred years.

But he and his neighbors have become too embarrassed to tell people they live there because of the ridicule they get by virtue of sharing a name with the sewage-clogged Baltimore City-run Back River Waste Water Treatment Plant.

“I’ll be honest, I usually tell people I live in Rocky Point,” said Celmer, board chair of the Back River Neck Peninsula Community Association, Inc.

In a strongly worded letter, Celmer’s group, along with the Rockaway Beach Improvement Association and Sussex Community Association, have called on legislative leaders in Annapolis and Maryland’s new governor, Wes Moore, to take decisive action, including to change the facility’s name.

“It is very difficult to watch millions of gallons of undertreated raw sewage flow past one’s home,” the letter said, going on to suggest a new name – “Baltimore Waste Water Treatment Plant East” – or something comparable.

“We would like our good name back, so we can rebuild the pride in our community that Baltimore City has taken from us by its continual neglect of its responsibilities,” the letter said.

A leader of another environmental group agrees, expressing frustration over the mockery of their beloved local waterway.

“People hear the name and say, ‘Ha ha, how about getting the poop out of there!’” said Desiree Greaver, the Back River Restoration Committee’s project manager.

From a 12/14/22 Back River sewage plant inspection report showing

From the December 2022 Back River sewage inspection report showing “heavy scum layer on the surface, along with floating solids” at primary settling tank No. 1. (Maryland Department of the Environment)

“Little has changed”

The frustration over the name is emblematic of the bigger problems that continue to plague the sewage treatment plant, Greaver and Celmer say.

“You look at the inspection reports. Pictures of scum, non-functioning equipment, equipment clogged with solids. We’re going right back to where we were,” Greaver said, pointing to MDE’s latest December inspection report on the facility.

“The smells just two days ago were gut-wrenching,” she added.

Last April, the Maryland Department of the Environment brought in the quasi-governmental Maryland Environmental Service to assume some management duties at Back River.

But Celmer, like Greaver, finds MES has had little discernible impact despite state officials touting the move as a major remedy.

“The state’s acting like we’re declaring victory and going home!” Celmer said. “In reality, little has changed.”

“The smells just two days ago were gut-wrenching.”  – Desiree Greaver, Back River Restoration Committee.

“The Back River Community no longer has trust or faith in the ability of the city of Baltimore to operate the plant effectively going forward,” his group’s letter said.

An inspector finds Primary Settling Tank 1 has a

An inspector finds Primary Settling Tank 1 has a “sludge blanket” above an acceptable level and photographs “solids” overflowing the weir and heading downstream to the next treatment stage. (Maryland Department of the Environment, 12/14/22 inspection, Back River plant)

Some residents say Baltimore County government is failing the community as well.

Celmer pointed to a December break in a county-managed sewage line that sent undisclosed amounts of effluent into Muddy Gut, a Back River tributary.

“The residents should have been informed of this,” Celmer said. “We have no idea when it started or how much was released.”

Calls for Regional Management

What’s the fix?

Greaver has sent her own letter to Governor Moore, asking what the state under his leadership plans to do to correct the problems that continue to surface at the facility.

Greaver said she was pleased to learn of the formation of a task force to explore shifting management of area water and wastewater services from Baltimore City to a regional entity, something on the order of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC).

“Not sure what will come of this task force, but at the very least it will confirm the issues we in the community have been talking about and trying to get addressed,” she said.

The letter by Celmer’s group and two neighboring associations calls explicitly for the formation of a “Baltimore Suburban Sanitary Commission.”

And Celmer himself puts it even more strongly.

“When do you ever hear about sewage spills by the WSSC? We know that model works. Why do we need a year-long task force to study it?” he asked.

“This is us drawing a line in the sand before they even appoint any members to that group – and saying, ‘This is what we want now.’”

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