The explosion that blew out a wall at the Synagro Pelletech Facility at Baltimore’s Back River sewage treatment plant may have come as a surprise to the general public.
But state inspectors and environmental experts have been warning the city that backed-up sludge poses a threat not only to the environment but to worker safety.
They are now urging city and state officials to act quickly to address the sludge management issues they say are likely the root cause of the explosion and pose a similar danger at Baltimore’s other sewage facility, the Patapsco Waste Water Treatment Plant.
“We have raised concerns repeatedly over the solids processing at both facilities. Also the need for adequately trained staff to operate and maintain the plants,” said Angela Haren, senior attorney with the Chesapeake Legal Alliance.
“There were several MDE inspection reports – back in 2022 – raising the concerns about potential fire and explosion hazards at the Patapsco plant,” said Haren, whose group joined forces with Blue Water Baltimore to sue the city and state over pollution at the facilities.
As Chesapeake Bay Foundation Senior Scientist Doug Myers sees it, the stakes are high given that Back Water is Maryland’s largest sewage treatment facility.
“The entire Bay cleanup is dependent on wastewater treatment in Baltimore being done properly,” he said, noting that the most recent inspection report in January showed only four of the 11 primary settling tanks at Back River were functioning.
“Something major needs to happen. All the stops need to be pulled out at City Hall,” he said.
”It’s a major human health issue and environmental issue. It’s inexcusable it’s been allowed to reach this point.”
Specter of Palestine, Ohio?
The union representing DPW employees has also expressed concern in the wake of the explosion, calling for safer infrastructure and better procedures to prevent harm in the event of a chemical accident.
“Honestly, we are concerned for employees at Back River and the surrounding Dundalk community,” City Union of Baltimore President Antoinette Ryan Johnson said in a prepared statement.
“We trust our colleagues with Maryland Environmental Service who tell us that the 12,000 gallons of thermal oil in the facility does not warrant a hazmat response and the amount burned off should not be dangerous,” Johnson said.
“But it is impossible to not think about the residents of East Palestine, Ohio, and worry about unknown effects of chemical burn off,” she continued.
“Poo Poo” Train
State reports, lawsuits and news coverage chronicle Baltimore’s struggles – going back decades – to dispose of Back River’s solid byproducts.
In 1989, a trainload of open sewage sludge from Baltimore – dubbed “the poo poo choo choo” – was turned back from Louisiana, Mississippi and other states whose residents did not want it dumped there.
The sludge train ended up chugging back to the city, and the national embarrassment propelled Baltimore to turn to a private company to help solve the problem.
In 1989, a trainload of open sewage sludge from Baltimore – dubbed “the poo poo choo choo” – raised a stink.
The pelletizing facility run by Synagro, now owned by a Goldman Sachs investment fund, began operating in Baltimore in 1994.
Fast-forward to 2021: Synagro’s system of heating and drying the solids relies on water from the treatment plant to be available for fire suppression.
However, this “flushing water” had become too contaminated to be used, resulting in fewer and fewer solids being processed.
At the same time, another key part of the operation, the dewatering centrifuges, were completely inoperable for several months due to management and equipment problems.
“Not having any dewatering capacity at a facility the size of Back River WWTP was a major failure,” a report last June by Maryland Environmental Service (MES) observed.
The MES report (see excerpts below) provides a glimpse of the challenges – some technical, some attitudinal – faced by the agency tasked with temporarily managing Back River.
One of these involved Baltimore Public Works Director Jason Mitchell, seen as slow-walking efforts to bring in potable city water for the pelletizer.
According to the report:
“As this discussion intensified, the DPW Director defended the city’s position on moving forward with the water lines saying, “it has only been 7 days” since the order was issued.
“The MDE representative at the meeting reminded DPW that it had actually been seven months of non-compliance.”
Last week’s explosion leads advocates like CBF’s Myers to question whether any progress has been made dealing with biosolids problems at the plants.
“What is really going on at these facilities?” asked Myers.
A regional authority to manage water and wastewater – to be discussed by a task force being established by Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott and Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski – may bring greater transparency “some day,” Myers says.
Legislation introduced in Annapolis would create a 13-member regional water governance panel whose recommendations are not expected until sometime in 2024.
For now, Myers said, the public can only hope officials are treating the situation with urgency.
“It’s one thing to identify the problem. But what they really need to do is redouble the personnel they have on hand, have somebody to be on call at all times. Humans need to be involved, and the tanks need to be skimmed on a daily basis.”
“It’s incumbent on the city to get this done right,” Myers added. “A fire and an explosion should be a wake-up call.”
Some excerpts from the June 2022 MES report on problems at the Synagro facility:
The pelletizer has been intermittently going down due to lack of water. During low flow periods, the level in vault 11 drops so low that they cannot pull water from it.
We discussed Synagro’ s pelletizer operation. Mike stated that he is waiting on a quote from United Rentals to tie into a 12″ city water line near Synagro’s operation. This will provide an above-grade water line to Synagro and therefore there will no longer be any excuse for not drying.
“The fact that the same issues keep being rehashed in the weekly meetings speaks volumes.”
The City Engineer reported that the headworks line had been tapped and brought across Eastern Avenue, and there was another 2,000 feet of pipe to be placed inside the plant fence. When asked about the Synagro line, MES was told DPW would get something started soon.
The fact that the same ideas and issues keep being rehashed – week after week – in the weekly meetings speaks volumes. This was best expressed by the MDE representative at the May 16, 2022, meeting when the sense of urgency by DPW was questioned during the discussions on the water line for the Synagro facility.
The silence in response was a testament to the lack of responsiveness to this issue and to the MDE Directive in general.
Received a call from Matt Tabisz of Synagro, RE: they stand ready to do work for us (i.e., digester cleaning). Mr. Tabisz told me that the dryer has been down for an entire year, and not the three-four months that we were told by the City.
• The problem of receiving no interest by contractors in cleaning PST-6. In the process of this discussion, I learned that previous PSTs cleaned by Synagro and Ullman Schutte involved taking the clarifier contents to the City’s Quarantine Road Landfill (hence the reason they had less problems removing PST material). However, the Quarantine Road Landfill is not permitted by MDE to receive sludge.
• I am to contact the City’s Landfill Manager to rectify this and get the proper permits and approvals (we will do this on the City’s behalf). I have already talked with Ed Dexter at MDE and he is aware that this is coming his way for a quick turnaround.