Talks underway for state to stay at Back River sewage treatment plant longer than planned, officials say – Baltimore Sun

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Maryland Department of the Environment spokesperson says Maryland and City of Baltimore officials are holding ‘deliberative conversations’ on whether state employees can stay at the sewage treatment plant Back River sewage beyond the expiration of an agreement reached earlier this year.

The sewage treatment plant in eastern Baltimore County apparently met limits on the amount of pollutants it can discharge under its state discharge permit in June, July and August, said Jay Apperson, spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment, which would trigger an end to state involvement under a negotiated consent with the city. But this is still under review and the two parties are discussing the continuation of the arrangement.

“These are deliberative conversations and at this time the current consent order remains in place,” Apperson wrote in an email.

Meanwhile, he said, recent inspection reports from the facility show continued maintenance and staffing issues, despite the water coming from the plant being up to standard.

The Maryland Environmental Service took over the plant in late March on the orders of then-Environmental Secretary Ben Grumbles after state inspectors documented ongoing issues leading to pollution of the Back River. .

While the city initially challenged the takeover in court, it negotiated the consent agreement with the state in June that clarified the scope and duration of the state’s involvement in the plant. The state agreed that it would vacate the troubled facility after complying with the limits set out in its environmental permit for three consecutive months. In other words, the water discharged from the plant should meet certain standards for the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus and other pollutants it contains.

Now state environmental officials are awaiting a report from the city, due Sept. 28, that would confirm the plant has also met annual and seasonal limits for the past few months, prorated, said Apperson.

The plant does not need to be in compliance with everything in its permit for the state to leave. The permit, for example, also includes non-numerical standards for how the factory should be run, and the factory breached some of those requirements when MDE inspectors last visited in August.

Angela Haren, senior counsel at the Chesapeake Legal Alliance, which is representing the nonprofit Blue Water Baltimore in its lawsuit against the city over the factories, called these numerical conditions on pollutant releases a “narrow lens.” She argues that other license violations at the plant warrant continued state involvement.

“What the inspection reports show us is that there continue to be significant issues at Patapsco and Back River, and we are very concerned about the prospect of the MES leaving,” he said. she declared.

Through the deal, the city has paid the Maryland Environmental Service about $2 million for its work so far, said MES spokeswoman Sharon Merkel.

In a statement, Yolanda Winkler, spokeswoman for the Baltimore Department of Public Works, did not say whether the city would support an extension or how long it would last, but said seven state staff were working. still in Back River. , less than at the beginning of this year.

“Collaboration between the City of Baltimore’s Department of Public Works (DPW), Maryland Department of Environment (MDE), and Maryland Environmental Service (MES) has produced improved results for the wastewater treatment plant. Back River sewage,” she said.

But according to a lawsuit filed this month by attorneys representing the city, the two parties are “negotiating an extension of the consent order to allow for the continued support of the Maryland Environmental Service (“MES”) to the plant until ‘at the end of the year.’

The city recently extended 14 job openings for new hires at the Back River plant and two for Patapsco, Baltimore Wastewater Office Chief Yosef Kebede wrote in his court statement, dated 6 september.

“While the city is still below desirable staffing levels, this is the norm in the industry during these unprecedented labor shortages,” Kebede wrote.

The filings came in response to Blue Water Baltimore’s federal nonprofit lawsuit against the city over its management of the Back River and Patapsco wastewater treatment plants, both of which have been flagged by the MDE for serious problems. maintenance resulting in harmful pollution. The state has not taken over the Patapsco plant, although environmental advocates have pushed for such an arrangement because the plant still fails to meet its pollution limits.

Blue Water Baltimore, which triggered inspections at both plants in 2021 after its water quality monitoring efforts detected high levels of bacteria in the Back and Patapsco Rivers, hopes a judge will impose demands enforceable for repairs at both plants. It also calls for public signage along both rivers warning of potentially high levels of bacteria.

In an initial hearing on the case, U.S. District Court Judge Lydia Kay Griggsby found that attorneys representing Blue Water Baltimore of the Chesapeake Legal Alliance had not provided enough evidence to show there would be “irreparable harm” if the court did not intervene. It allowed them to prepare an additional brief in response. A new hearing to discuss Blue Water’s claim is scheduled for October 11.

According to Back River State’s latest inspection report, dated Aug. 16, even though the quality of the plant’s discharge water has improved, problems remain with the machinery inside the plant. installation.

For example, although more of the main primary settlers were online, filters elsewhere in the plant were clogged and not washed frequently enough, the inspector noted.

Dan Latova, a factory representative, blamed the problems on personnel issues and told the inspector that “they were unable to get qualified personnel” because staff members are selected by the city’s human resources department, rather than by factory management, and often lack sufficient prior experience.

“He further stated that there were not enough staff to be able to provide the hours of training needed to get candidates to a point where they can function on their own,” the inspection report said.

Desiree Greaver, project manager for the Back River Restoration Committee – a non-profit organization that has been one of the loudest voices calling for improvements at the plant – said she was concerned that if MES left the installation, the mechanical problems would reoccur and the plant could resume discharging excess pollutants into the Back River. It was a concern echoed by many members of the community living along the river during a tense meeting over the factory in July, organized by the restoration committee.

Greaver said she was invited to tour the plant for the first time last Wednesday, alongside members of the state Senate’s Budget and Taxation Committee, and was impressed with how far she’s come since inspection reports from earlier this year and last year showed serious problems, such as vegetation growing in sewage settling tanks and discolored water flowing into the river from factory.

On Wednesday, she saw workers repairing settling ponds and found that the water cascading down the river was clear.

She hopes visits like the one last week will allow her organization to serve as a bridge between factory officials and the community, with the aim of restoring public confidence in the facility.

“The community doesn’t trust the city, the state, the county. Nobody trusts them. They didn’t deserve it,” she said. “It’s going to take a lot of work to fix this and get us all back on the same team.”

His group also hopes that the General Assembly could take up the issue of creating a regional authority to manage the city’s wastewater treatment plants, so that entities other than Baltimore City are involved in operations. from the factory, she said.

It’s a possible outcome that was announced by officials including Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr.

In the meantime, groups like the Restoration Committee are engaged in a “waiting game,” Greaver said, eager to see if the city continues to foot the bill for additional state employees.

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