What’s Happening at Baltimore’s Wastewater Plants?

An aerial picture of the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant
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Photo: Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant via Google Earth

On Monday, Blue Water Baltimore, represented by pro bono attorneys at the Chesapeake Legal Alliance and the firm Barley Snyder, filed a motion in our federal Clean Water Act lawsuit against the Mayor and City Council of Baltimore over conditions at the Back River and Patapsco wastewater treatment plants. We are asking the court for immediate injunctive relief—to order the City to immediately begin fixing the plants’ ongoing issues because they are resulting in irreparable harm to people and the environment. Read the full press release here.

Recent inspection reports at both plants have revealed dysfunction and failure at almost every stage of processing at both plants, and they both continue to discharge pollution well above their  permitted limits, presenting a danger to the environment, the public, and plant workers.

Here’s what we’re asking for:

  • Both plants deal with solids and sludge, fixing and cleaning centrifuges and settling tanks to keep solids from being discharged into waterways;
  • Properly monitor discharges from the plants and report the results;
  • Hire qualified workers to address staffing shortages; and
  • Notify the public of violations and post warning signs in popular recreation spots.

At the Patapsco plant, we are also asking for information about the accumulation and discharge of fats, oil, and grease, which are clogging the treatment mechanisms and making their way into the river.

Why now?

This case began after Blue Water Baltimore found elevated levels of fecal bacteria during our regular testing near the Patapsco plant in Spring 2021, and subsequent investigations by the state found major violations at both plants. The Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE)  later directed the Maryland Environmental Service to take charge of the Back River plant. The city initially contested that takeover in state court, but last week came to an agreement with MDE to solidify the temporary takeover, but that action doesn’t address the initial enforcement action against the city for violations, and it doesn’t include the Patapsco plant at all. The rules we’re asking the court to enforce aren’t new, they’ve been in effect all along, and the recent reports reveal the city’s past compliance to be inadequate.

What’s next?

We wait, and we advocate. The court will hear arguments on our motion on July 20, 2022, and we hope that given what one report called the “inadequate, ineffective, and dangerous” conditions, the court will find in our favor. Even if this preliminary motion is unsuccessful, we will continue to pursue this issue until the two plants follow the law and meet their obligations to protect our communities and environment.

While we wait, we’re not wasting any time.  Many of you joined us in our call for the use of expanded funding options like ARPA to expedite the capital projects and staffing solutions that are needed at both plants during recent City budget hearings.  We’re looking forward to the upcoming City Council investigative hearing on the Back River plant (date TBD). To stay updated on our advocacy efforts related to this issue, sign up for our newsletter.

If you have any questions about this case, reach out to Alice, your Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper, at [email protected].