an aerial view of a large yellow object

In 2023, Blue Water Baltimore won one of the largest environmental civil settlements in Maryland history. It came as a result of a Clean Water Act lawsuit filed with our partners at Chesapeake Legal Alliance, but also as a result of years of hard work, and the testing program that began in 2008 and is one of the most comprehensive sources of public information about Baltimore’s waterways.

The testing program was started by the Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper in 2008, and expanded in 2010 to include our current 49 testing sites around the area. One of those sites is strategically located at the submerged effluent pipe coming from the Patapsco Wastewater Treatment Plant (WWTP), and our discovery of fats, oils, and grease there in 2013 led to a 2016 consent order between the city and the Maryland Department of the environment. That agreement was still in force when our water testing revealed a problem at the Patapsco plant.

April 20, 2021

a boat traveling through the water with other boats in the background

A Warning Sign

BWB detected very high bacteria levels in the water at the Patapsco WWTP discharge pipe in our April and May testing. A single high reading is not unheard of and can be explained by rainfall or other factors, but a second one led BWB to alert MDE and request an inspection.

May 6, 2021

an aerial view of a large yellow object

A Failed Inspection

An MDE inspection of the Patapsco plant found the facility to be in noncompliance with several requirements of its NPDES permit.  The inspector found both “insufficient maintenance and operational staff” and a number of “equipment failures”.  A recently installed system to remove nitrogen was being bypassed altogether.  During this inspection, MDE determined that floating solids in the Patapsco River near the WWTP discharge were caused by the long-term failure of the City to comply with the 2016 consent order.

August 2021

a plastic container filled with water next to a yellow pole

Widespread Violations

An MDE inspection at the Back River WWTP finds also finds widespread violations. After MDE makes the June inspection report publicly available in August 2021, BWB issues a press release sounding the alarm on the irreparable harm being done to ecological and public health in both the Patapsco and Back Rivers, and calls for immediate corrective measures.

December 15, 2021

the baltimore sun newspaper is showing an image of a harbor

Blue Water Baltimore Files Lawsuit

After another failed inspection by MDE, and a required 60-day notice period for the city, BWB files a federal Clean Water Act complaint against the city for hundreds of violations at the Patapsco and Back River WWTPs. MDE subsequently files their own complaint in Baltimore City Circuit Court, which BWB signs onto.

March 27, 2022

a document with an image of the water and land environment

A Public Outcry

Following the alarming discharges of partially untreated sewage at the Back River WWTP, additional site inspections by MDE, and subsequent public outcry, MDE issued
a directive to the Maryland Environmental Service (MES) to take over supervisory operations at the Back River WWTP.

October 11, 2022

an old building is on the corner of a street

Coming to the Table

The judge in the circuit court case orders Baltimore City to submit monthly status reports to the court, to ensure that progress continued. The following month, BWB began settlement talks with MDE and the city.

November 2023

the sun newspaper front page

A Settlement is Reached

Blue Water Baltimore and its attorneys at the Chesapeake Legal Alliance reach an agreement with Maryland Department of Environment and Baltimore City to address pollution violations at the state’s two largest Wastewater Treatment Plants (WWTPs).
Under the agreement, Baltimore City will pay $4.75 million in penalties, replace and repair necessary equipment, submit quarterly progress reports, and hold annual public meetings to inform the public of the work being done.
The settlement is the largest civil penalty for a water pollution violation in at least 25 years and one of the largest ever civil penalties for a violation of any Maryland environmental law. Forty percent of the funds ($1.9 million) will go to restoration projects in the Back River and Patapsco watersheds, to be administered as competitive grants overseen by the Chesapeake Bay Trust.

What Happens Next?

The Chesapeake Bay Trust is charged with administering grants from the money paid by the city. The Trust held its first listening session January 30, 2024, with more scheduled for later in the year to hear from residents what they would like to see improved or restored in the areas around the plants. Blue Water Baltimore continues to monitor the treatment plants, both as a party to the settlement, and as part of our regular long-term water quality monitoring.