The largest wastewater treatment plant in Maryland is being taken over by the state this week after it became clear the city, which had been managing the plant, allowed millions of gallons of untreated sewage to leak into local waterways. Already, Baltimore city mayor Brandon Scott who has been in office nearly a year and a half, has started trying to deflect blame for the plant’s condition:
On Monday, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott said the issues at the plant, which is run by Baltimore City but is located in Baltimore County, predated his administration.
“This will not be an overnight fix but we must work collaboratively and combine our resources in order to ensure clean and healthy communities,” he said.
Del Robin Grammer, a Baltimore County Republican whose district includes the plant, pushed back on the mayor’s comments.
“The leadership of the city will never take ownership of this issue. I hope all interested parties realize how long eastern Baltimore County has suffered this problem and that we are done having our waterways treated like a toilet,” he said.
Problems at the plant started making news last summer when inspections found untreated wastewater was spilling into local rivers. Not to put too fine a point on this but we’re talking about millions of gallons of water contaminated with fecal matter.
Baltimore’s two wastewater treatment plants have illegally discharged millions of gallons a day of partially treated sewage into the tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay, according to state environmental inspections.
The amount being discharged each day into the Patapsco and Back rivers was enough to fill a wading pool the size of 295-acre Patterson Park, according to the environmental group Blue Water Baltimore, which discovered and reported the high levels of fecal matter in both rivers to the Maryland Department of Environment.
An investigation by Maryland’s Department of Environment suggested there was a problem with a centrifuge used to separate solids from the wastewater. So, almost literally, the sh*t was hitting the fan in Baltimore and the fan broke.
Plant manager Betty Jacobs told MDE inspectors that the Back River plant’s main centrifuge began to have problems in January 2021, affecting the plant’s ability to process solid waste, according the inspection report. But one inspector thought it started earlier.
“My review determined that the effluent violations began in August 2020 well before the centrifuge failed in January 2021,” the inspector wrote in the report. “Therefore, there is evidence that the centrifuge began failing some time in 2020.”
And once that happened, the waste that wasn’t removed at that step began flowing through the rest of the plant and into the water that was released back into the river:
When excessive nutrients, such as those in partially treated sewage, are released into a body of water, they stimulate the growth of algae. In large quantities, algae blooms can block sunlight from marine environments, and as they die, they are decomposed by bacteria — a process that strips the surrounding water of dissolved oxygen, essentially suffocating fish, crabs and other creatures in so-called “dead zones.”
Inside the plant, a state inspector documented widespread maintenance issues. He found equipment clogged by sewage buildups and covered in vegetation and algae. Employees told him that only two of 11 settlement tanks — meant to separate out solid waste from liquid — were functioning. So, solid waste was gumming up the works at various points later in the treatment process.
The state actually sued the city to force them back into compliance. Then last week the state gave the city an ultimatum giving them 48-hours to be in compliance, noting that the entire plant was in danger of failing because of long term neglect. Obviously that didn’t happen so now the state is taking over.
As you’ll see in this local news report, a member of the Back River Restoration Committee described it as “a volcano of human feces coming out of the water.” Mayor Scott is right about one thing, this won’t be a quick fix.
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