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Fresh Water, Foul Sewage

by Mark Reutter8:26 amMar 17, 20230

BREAKING: Head of Baltimore’s sewer and water operations to step down

Yosef Kebede’s departure comes on the heels of an explosion at the Back River sewage treatment plant and months of staff turnover. UPDATED.

Above: Yosef Kebede speaks to the Board of Estimates last year. (CharmTV)

The head of Baltimore’s Bureau of Water and Wastewater, who is responsible for the troubled Back River Waste Water Treatment Plant, has told associates he is leaving.

Yosef Kebede disclosed the decision to senior staff a day before an explosion blew out a key operation at the treatment plant, two department sources told The Brew.

Kebede gave no reason why he would step down, effective April 7, according to the sources, who asked not to be identified in order to discuss a personnel matter that has not yet been made public.

Kebede’s resignation follows a 3½-year tenure marked not only by massive pollution outflows at the Back River plant, but an outbreak of E. coli contamination in West Baltimore and heavy staff turnover attributed by many to Kebede’s lack of operating experience.

”He never performed as bureau head. He surrounded himself with consultants and yes men,” said a former department supervisor.

The Brew detailed allegations of plant mismanagement, such as prioritizing lawn cutting and other cosmetic appearances over staff hiring and equipment repairs, here.

3/21 UPDATE: Today DPW responded to a request for comment about Kebede’s resignation with this statement:

“For the past three years, Yosef Kebede has served as the Bureau Head of Water and Wastewater for DPW. We appreciate his expertise and commitment in providing high-quality service to our residents and water customers. We wish him all the best as he moves forward in his career and thank him for his service and dedication to the City of Baltimore.”

Many Vacancies

Kebede joins Jason W. Mitchell, who announced in January he is leaving as Baltimore’s director of Public Works.

Mitchell, however, has remained at the agency, which has contributed to poor working relations and longstanding tensions between Kebede and Mitchell, sources said.

Meanwhile, many top positions at DPW remain vacant or under acting staff.

They include chief financial officer, chief of Customer Service Division, chief of Meter Operations Division, chief of Water Facilities Division, head of Bureau of Solid Waste and Chief Technical Officer.

At the same time, new positions have been created, including $232,000 allocated – and approved by the Board of Estimates earlier this month – for a deputy to serve under Kebede.

Kebede will exit from the agency’s largest department, responsible for the water and sewage needs of 1.8 million residents of Baltimore City and surrounding counties.

Kebede did not return an emailed request for comment. The DPW press office also has not responded.

A Stanford University-trained engineer who spent most of his career as a environmental and human capital consultant in the U.S. and abroad, Kebede was hired as acting head in June 2019 after handling consent decree paperwork for the department.

He was sworn in as permanent bureau head by Mayor Scott shortly before problems, accumulating for months at Back River, burst into the open.

“Lack of urgency”

Last March, the Maryland Department of the Environment placed the city-owned facility under the temporary control of Maryland Environmental Service.

MDE Secretary Ben Grumbles said he took the unprecedented action to avoid the risk of “catastrophic failure” at the plant, which was illegally relesing high concentrations of nitrogen, phosphorus and PCB-tainted sludge into Back River, a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay.

Grumbles blamed the plant’s “precipitous decline” on unqualified staff and the sustained lack of maintenance despite $1 billion spent in capital improvements, including a massive new “headworks” that directed over 120 million gallons of sewage a day into an otherwise antiquated system.

An inoperable settling tank due to backed-up solids at Baltimore's Back River Waste Water Treatment Plant, (Report om 3/22/22 inspection, Maryland Department of the Environment)

Backed-up solids at a treatment tank photographed by state inspectors last March. BELOW: Muck from the plant floating on Back River picked up by local environmentalists. (MDE, Mark Reutter)

back river debris from sewage pier
Kebede and Mitchell attributed the plant’s problems to supply-chain delays, staff shortages and the Covid pandemic.

But in a report to the Maryland legislature, MES said the problems started at the top, citing defensiveness and lack of urgency by Kebede and Mitchell.

“The gravity of the issue does not seem to resonate with DPW staff, as their response seems to have been a ‘business as usual’ approach,” the report said.

In January, Kebede  told the Board of Estimates that the plant had turned a corner and was in compliance with state and federal pollution standards.

He said MES staff would leave the plant at the end of April as it returned fully to city management.

Wednesday’s explosion at the Pelletech Facility, where safety as well as operational issues were raised by MES and state inspectors, has now put a big dent in those plans.


After reports of dead fish and “volcanoes of black stuff” in Back River, MDE cracks down on sewage treatment plant (3/25/22)

Already troubled, Back River went downhill fast after dismissal of senior staff (4/1/22)

Back River staff is disorganized, demoralized and sometimes asleep on the job, state report finds(6/13/22)

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