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Maryland Department of the Environment

Maryland Environment Secretary Grumbles announces filing of suit against Baltimore City over wastewater treatment troubles


Complaint alleges violations of state and federal pollution laws, threat to Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts, seeks civil penalties

BALTIMORE (Jan. 21, 2022) – Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles today announced the filing of a suit against Baltimore City to stop unauthorized discharges of pollution from the state’s two largest sewage treatment plants.

The lawsuit, filed today in Baltimore City circuit court, states that Baltimore City’s operation of the Back River and Patapsco wastewater treatment plants and the unauthorized discharge of pollutants, including nitrogen and phosphorus, undermines Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts by Maryland and the other bay watershed states. The suit describes a number of alleged permit violations, including effluent limit exceedances and reporting failures, and includes four counts alleging significant violations of environmental law.

The complaint requests the court to require Baltimore City to stop discharges of pollutants from the plants that are not authorized by an MDE permit and to require the city to take all steps necessary to come into permanent and consistent compliance with the applicable environmental law. It also requests the court to assess civil penalties against the city of up to $10,000 per violation per day.

“Our top enforcement priority is getting the city’s world-class treatment plants back into compliance immediately so we stay on track with the 2025 Chesapeake Bay restoration goal,” said Secretary Grumbles. “We’re filing the lawsuit and continuing to increase oversight of the city’s Department of Public Works since we uncovered the full scope of the problem, and we’re doing so in coordination with nongovernmental organizations that have already filed suit and share our goal for protecting local water quality.”

Today’s complaint, filed on MDE’s behalf by its lawyers in the Office of the Attorney General, lists the department as plaintiff and names the mayor and city council of Baltimore as defendants. The filing in Baltimore circuit court was done in conjunction with the department’s filing of Notice of Intent to file suit against the city in federal court, where Blue Water Baltimore has filed suit against the city. MDE’s Notice of Intent — one for the Patapsco plant and one for the Back River plant — preserves the department’s right to bring an action in federal court or join in Blue Water Baltimore’s suit, but at this time MDE intends to pursue its claims in City circuit court.

During MDE inspections last June, September and December at the Back River plant, and as a result of reviewing information and materials submitted by Baltimore City before and after the inspections, the department observed extensive violations of the plant’s discharge permit, the suit filed today states. The department made similar observations at the Patapsco plant during inspections in May through June 2021 and last October and December, according to the suit. The complaint states the city’s unauthorized discharge of pollutants from the two plants has contaminated Back River, Bear Creek and the Patapsco River.

MDE has been focused in recent months on the actions needed for these plants’ immediate return to compliance with their permit conditions, all of which will be captured in an enforceable legal agreement that ensures the highest level of accountability, including serious financial penalties. MDE has reviewed and provided feedback on the city’s proposed compliance plans and will continue efforts to accelerate the plans’ timelines for necessary improvements. In October, Secretary Grumbles sent a letter to Baltimore Mayor Brandon M. Scott to strongly encourage him to direct significant funding the city is receiving under the federal American Rescue Plan to fix the problems at the plants.

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