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Maryland Department of the Environment

Sec. Grumbles directs Maryland Environmental Service to take charge of Back River WWTP


Directive for Maryland Environmental Service to oversee operations at Baltimore City-owned plant to protect public health and the environment follows city’s failure to comply with March 24 order requiring demonstration that it has met all discharge permit terms

BALTIMORE (March 27, 2022) – Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles today directed the Maryland Environmental Service (MES) to take charge of operations at Baltimore City’s Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant (WWTP).

Secretary Grumbles directed MES to oversee the operation, maintenance and improvements of the plant, the largest in the state, to ensure that Baltimore City meets objectives that include protecting public and environmental health. The directive specifies that MES shall take action to ensure that the city operates the plant in compliance with all terms of its discharge permit and cease all illegal discharges from the Back River WWTP.

The directive was issued after Baltimore City failed to comply with a previous order from Secretary Grumbles to immediately end illegal discharges of water pollution at the plant and demonstrate that it has come into compliance with all Clean Water Act permit conditions. That order was issued March 24 following a Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) inspection two days earlier that “revealed the precipitous decline of the functioning of several critical processes at the Plant in comparison with prior inspections.”

The directive issued today states that MDE “has determined that 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. “I am taking additional, necessary and immediate action by directing the Maryland Environmental Service to take charge of operations at the plant.”

The directive to MES was issued as set forth in state law. MES’ stated mission is to provide operational and technical services to protect and enhance the environment for the benefit of the people of Maryland. MES runs and maintains state-owned water, wastewater and solid waste management facilities across Maryland.

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.

Secretary Grumbles spoke with Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott Friday about the Back River and Patapsco wastewater treatment plants. They discussed the importance of these valuable assets and the urgent need to improve management to prevent pollution and protect environmental health.

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. 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, MDE observed extensive violations of the plant’s discharge permit, the suit filed in January states. That case is pending.

The March 24 MDE order set a 48-hour deadline for the city to demonstrate that it has come into compliance with all discharge permit conditions for the Back River plant. On Saturday, more than 48 hours after service of the order, MDE conducted a follow-up inspection of the plant. MDE documented that the corrective actions identified in the March 22 inspection have not been completed, and extensive violations of conditions contained in the facility’s discharge permit continue.

Citing the applicable sections of state law, the directive issued today states: “. . . the Secretary hereby DIRECTS that [MES] take charge of the Back River WWTP, including its operations, maintenance, and improvements functions, in order to work with Baltimore City to ensure that Baltimore City meets the following objectives: protecting public and environmental health; abating any further nuisance; providing appropriate levels of qualified staff; conducting appropriate maintenance, improvements and modifications; operating the Back River WWTP in compliance with all terms of the Back River Discharge Permit; and ceasing all unpermitted discharges from the Back River WWTP.”

The directive also calls for MES to undertake a comprehensive assessment of the plant’s operation, maintenance, staffing, and equipment and, by June 6, 2022, to submit a report to MDE of its findings and recommendations.

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