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City wastewater woes: what's gone wrong at Back River and Patapsco

Back River wastewater-treatment_credit JaneThomas_UMd Center for Environmental Science.jpeg
The Back River wastewater treatment plant in East Baltimore is one of the two facilities owned and run by the City of Baltimore that have been criticized by the State of Maryland and clean-water activists for chronic discharges of insufficiently treated sewage into the region's waterways. (photo credit JaneThomas_for UMd CES

Today, a conversation about problems with Baltimore’s water system. Aging infrastructure, ineffective accounting and billing, and high costs to rate-payers are just some of the challenges facing the City's Department of Public Works (DPW).

Two weeks ago, problems got worse. The Maryland Secretary of the Environment, Ben Grumbles, ordered that the authority over the operations of the Back River wastewater treatment plant be taken away from the city, and transferred to the state. Late last month, state inspectors found that the Back River plant was discharging polluted water in violation of the Clean Water Act. Their scathing report on the plant cited "the precipitous decline of the functioning of several critical processes at the Plant in comparison with prior inspections.”

Yesterday, when Tom asked Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scottabout why problems at the city-owned Back River and Patapsco wastewater treatment plants hadn’t been addressed, the mayor noted that the problems pre-date his administration:

"We know the Back River and Patapsco wastewater issues in Baltimore, the issues have been there, you know, they don't just predate my administration, but the administration that came before me and the one that came before that, and the one that came before that.  We are committed to working with MDE and MESto get this facility into compliance.  I actually personally met with the secretary right before this decision was made, and said that we want to continue to work with them.

But we know this is not an overnight fix. We're going to work collaboratively with them to combine resources to ensure that we're being good stewards of this service, right? And making sure that we are supporting our Chesapeake Bay. We know that there are supply-chain issues and staffing shortages that have made getting Back River...into compliance difficult." 

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, speaking with Tom Hall here on Midday, yesterday.

We think it’s important to know what’s going on at these wastewater facilities, why these alleged violations of the Clean Water Act are serious, and what the city is going to have to do to solve these longstanding problems.

To help us understand, Tom invited two environmental advocates to join us for part of the hour today.

Alice Volpitta of Blue Water Baltimore is the Baltimore Water Keeper.Blue Water Baltimore is part of the lawsuits that are currently in the courts…

Angela Haren is a Senior Attorney at the Chesapeake Legal Alliance. She also happens to be a former Baltimore Water Keeper…

Alice Volpitta and Angela Haren join us on Zoom.

Alice Volpitta (left), Baltimore Harbor Water Keeper with Bluewater Baltimore; Angela Haren, Senior Attorney, Chesapeake Legal Alliance (courtesy photos)
Alice Volpitta (left), Baltimore Harbor Water Keeper with Bluewater Baltimore; Angela Haren, Senior Attorney, Chesapeake Legal Alliance (courtesy photos)

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Host, Midday (M-F 12:00-1:00)
Rob is a contributing producer for Midday.