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Maryland Department of the Environment

Public health advisory and progress report issued for Back River


BALTIMORE (April 22, 2022) – Due to contaminants in Back River that can cause illness, the Maryland Department of the Environment and the Maryland Department of Health today issued the following recommendations:

Avoid contact with Back River water
Do not drink stream water
Do not swim or wade in the water
Always wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water before eating
If you accidentally touch the water, wash with soap and water as soon as possible
If you have open wounds or sores that come in contact with stream water, talk with your healthcare provider
If water contact cannot be avoided, cover any open wounds or sores with waterproof bandages

The advisory was issued in consultation with the Baltimore County Department of Health and Baltimore City. The Baltimore County Department of Health will post signage at Cox’s Point Park. The advisory will remain in effect until further notice.

“The health advisory is a necessary and protective step in our broader effort to stabilize the situation and dramatically improve the operation and maintenance of Baltimore’s world-class wastewater asset,” said Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles.

The Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) is aware of independent water sampling in the Back River showing elevated bacteria levels both upstream and downstream of the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant (WWTP). MDE began weekly sampling on April 19 to collect bacteria samples from the river and at the end of the WWTP outfall. The results of that sampling, received April 20, showed bacteria levels above the state water contact standard for samples taken from three of four sampling locations.

MDE oversees a program in which beaches across the state, including Hart-Miller Island, are monitored for water quality during the summer swimming season and advisories are made to the public when needed. MDE also provides fish consumption advisories, based on potential long term effects of PCBs and mercury, for waterways in the state, including Back River. Bacteria levels are used to gauge whether waters are safe for the harvesting of shellfish, including oysters, because shellfish are often eaten raw or partially cooked. Those restrictions do not apply to fish or crabs.

The Maryland Environmental Service (MES), as directed by Secretary Grumbles, is overseeing the Back River WWTP’s operations and maintenance and is taking steps to ensure that the city operates the facility in compliance with all terms of its discharge permit and ceases all illegal discharges from the plant.

MES is making steady progress in bringing the technical and operational resources that will help Baltimore City more efficiently treat wastewater. Eleven MES licensed operators, supplementing existing city staff, are working in three shifts to allow for 24-hour coverage of the facility. MES’ maintenance activities include identifying issues, problem areas, potential safety concerns and the repairing or replacing of numerous pumps, motors and controls around the plant. Maintenance is also working with vendors to speed up the procurement process and update old failing equipment. MES is also cleaning and repairing two primary settling tanks and cleaning two digesters and bringing in additional meters and lab equipment to enhance the process control lab – the brains of the treatment system.

Baltimore City is working to bring the remaining primary settling tanks into operation and has cleared vegetation and debris from two gravity sludge thickener tanks. The city has also restarted an important solids handling process that will reduce the amount of solids in the plant. The new headworks project, completed last year, has mitigated the impact of rainfall-induced higher flows by utilizing two new equalization tanks for temporary storage. Finally, MES and Baltimore City are collaborating on an operator training program that will add to the current 27 permanently licensed city operators while developing the next generation of wastewater treatment professionals.

MES will stay in place as long as necessary, working with Baltimore City, to achieve the objective of bringing this plant into compliance.

More information on the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant, including the results of MDE’s sampling for bacteria in Back River, is available on MDE’s website.

If you have any questions, contact: Matthew C. Rowe, 410-537-3578.

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