Fresh Water, Foul Sewage
Advocates call sludge-clogged Back River sewage plant “a ticking time bomb”
Part 1: After last week’s explosion at the Baltimore-run facility, environmental groups and a local lawmaker fear the systemic problems behind the blast still have not been corrected
Above: A non-functional sewage sludge settling tank at the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant, not scheduled to go back online until Fall 2023. (January 2023 MDE inspection report)
After an explosion and fire rocked a building at the Back River Waste Water Treatment Plant last week, a spokeswoman for the city stood outside the still-smoldering building and said the plant would continue to operate “business as usual.”
But in a subsequent press release, the agency acknowledged that “operations have been suspended” at the Synagro Pelletech Facility, an onsite operation where a private contractor dries sewage sludge and converts it into fertilizer pellets.
Confirmation that the Synagro plant is shut down comes as alarming news to environmental scientists and to Baltimore County residents who know how central sludge removal is to the entire facility.
“I have heard no explanation for how they are going to be handling this now,” Doug Myers, senior scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, told The Brew.
“Are they going to have to truck it out?” said Myers. “It’s like a ticking time bomb. These are volatile biosolids that can catch fire.”
Synagro processes 70% of the solid waste output at Back River, located in Baltimore County and run by Baltimore City’s Department of Public Works, whose top sewage administrator, Yosef Kebede, has quietly resigned, The Brew reported on Friday.
Biosolids (aka, sludge) removal is a critical process at a plant already documented to be rife with operational and maintenance failures.
When biosolids back up, settling tanks, centrifuges and other important equipment stop working.
That’s what happened when Synagro’s pelletizing process ground to a halt between November 2021 and March 2022 – ironically because there were too many suspended solids in the water it was getting from the city.
The difficulties caused by the Synagro shutdown directly impacted the facility’s discharge of nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, into Back River and the Cheaspeake Bay, which leads to low-oxygen “dead zones” degrading the Bay ecosystem.
“It is widely accepted that the inability to process solids was a significant factor in the inability of the facility to meet its discharge permit requirements,” a June 2022 report by Maryland Environmental Service (MES) said.
“Has anything been fixed?”
For Delegate Robin Grammer, the fire and explosion not only shook the Essex-Middle River area he represents, but any confidence he had in the partial state takeover of the facility last March.
“This gives me renewed concerns about the overall functioning of the plant,” Grammer said in an interview.
The Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) took that dramatic step after a watchdog group, Blue Water Baltimore, sounded the alarm about illegal pollution discharged at Back River and the city’s Patapsco Waste Water Treatment Plant in far South Baltimore.
BACK RIVER A YEAR AGO:
• Already troubled, Back River went downhill fast after dismissal of experienced senior staff (4/1/22)
• State takes control of Baltimore’s troubled Back River sewage treatment plant (3/27/22)
• What the wastewater looks – and smells – like coming out of the Back River sewage plant (4/19/22)
MDE brought in MES to assume temporary control of the Back River operation, where it soon documented deep dysfunction and numerous violations.
Now MDE, under a new director appointed by a new governor, is scheduled to withdraw MES managers at the end of March.
That’s all too soon, says Grammer (R-Baltimore County).
The failure of the biosolids operation was at the center of the whole damn thing. It caused things to be backed up all the way down the line. Are we back there again?” – Delegate Robin Grammer.
The explosion at Synagro makes him worry that Back River’s problems have remained essentially unchanged – and that the facility remains at risk of more pollution releases and/or serious accidents, endangering the public and employees.
“The failure of the biosolids operation was central to the whole failure we had the last time. It was at the center of the whole damn thing,” Grammer said.
“It caused things to be backed up all the way down the line. Are we back there again? I mean has anything really been fixed?”
Myers and Grammer both point to troubling findings in the latest MDE inspection report, conducted in January, showing that only four of the 11 primary settling tanks at Back River were functioning.
Grammer is hoping to learn more after sending a letter to MDE and MES asking what the explosion and shutdown of Synagro will now mean to plant operations.
PART 2: Back River’s sewage sludge problems were well known for more than a year (3/20/23)