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Maryland Department of the Environment

Secretary Grumbles issues order demanding immediate end to illegal discharges at Back River WWTP


Order cites ongoing and worsening operational deficiencies at state’s largest sewage treatment plant, requires demonstration of compliance with all discharge permit conditions within 48 hours

BALTIMORE (March 24, 2022) – Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles today issued an order requiring Baltimore City to immediately cease all unpermitted discharges of water pollution from its Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant. The order sets a 48-hour deadline for the city to demonstrate that it has come into compliance with all Clean Water Act permit conditions.

The order was issued following a Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) inspection earlier this week that “revealed the precipitous decline of the functioning of several critical processes at the Plant in comparison with prior inspections,” the order states, adding: “The decline in the proper maintenance and operation of the Plant risks catastrophic failures at the Plant that may result in environmental harm as well as adverse public health and comfort effects.”

“The ongoing and escalating problems at the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant present an unacceptable threat to the environment and public health,” Secretary Grumbles said. “We are taking this extraordinary step to require immediate improvements at the plant and accountability for the failures there. If the conditions of my order are not met, I will not hesitate to take further appropriate actions.”

Earlier this year, MDE filed suit against the city seeking civil penalties and an order requiring the city to take all steps necessary for the city’s Back River and Patapsco treatment plants to come into permanent and consistent compliance with environmental law. That case is pending.

The Back River plant is the largest in Maryland, designed to discharge up to 180 million gallons a day of treated wastewater. 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 March 22, 2022, inspection revealed significantly increased noncompliance with the Back River Discharge Permit that is causing new or increased unpermitted discharges to Back River . . .” the order issued today states. 

Citing the applicable section of Maryland law, the order states: “. . . to prevent or correct pollution of the waters of the State and to ensure the Back River WWTP is operated in a manner that will protect public health and comfort, effective immediately, Secretary Grumbles hereby ORDERS Baltimore City to operate the Back River WWTP in compliance with all terms of the Back River Discharge Permit, including, but not limited to, providing an adequate number of operating staff that are qualified to carry out the operations, maintenance, and testing functions required to ensure compliance with the Back River WWTP Permit, and to cease all unpermitted discharges from the Back River WWTP.  Baltimore City shall make all necessary and appropriate alterations to the Back River WWTP and its operations in order to comply with this Order.  Within 48 hours of service of this Order, Baltimore City will submit to the Department sufficient documentary evidence that the Back River WWTP is operating in compliance with all terms of the Back River Discharge Permit and that it has ceased all unpermitted discharges.”  

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