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Baltimore County wants in on the running of the city’s water and sewer system

The Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant in Baltimore. Egg-shaped structures are digesters in the wastewater treatment plant process.
Baltimore County Government
The Back River wastewater treatment plant. Credit: Lauren Watley, Baltimore County

In the wake of the problems at Baltimore City’s Back River wastewater treatment plant, Baltimore County wants a say in how the city is running things.

The city owns the plant in Dundalk in Eastern Baltimore County and has been providing water and sewer service to the county for decades.

It has become the target of county officials’ ire because it is dumping massive amounts of nutrients and bacteria into Back River.

County Executive Johnny Olszewski said when it comes to water and sewer, the county now wants a seat at the table.

Olszewski said, “The fact that we contribute significantly, half of the cost to the system, and that we’re impacted equally, or in the case of Back River, in some ways even more directly, I think having some sort of shared governance and oversight and input into the system, that’s a conversation that we should be having.”

The county and city commissioned a review of water and sewer operations by NewGen Strategies and Solutions LLC . The July 2021 study made multiple suggestions on how to improve the system, including changing the city’s almost-exclusive management.

“Under the current governance framework, the City and the Director of Public Works are not accountable to the County’s customer service delivery, system reliability or operational efficiency,” the report states.

The report lays out various ways the city and county could share the responsibility of managing water and sewer.

It also points out the current arrangement dates back more than 75 years, when “Baltimore County had less than a quarter of the City's population and was largely undeveloped. No one could have anticipated the demographic shifts that would occur over the following 75 years. A new evaluation of City and County roles and responsibilities in the utility is long overdue.”

Olszewski said he has talked to Baltimore City Mayor Brandon Scott about it.

“I think he’s open to conversations,” Olszewski said. “I certainly appreciate that this is a city asset, and so we’re not talking about ownership. This is just a conversation around governance and oversight.”

Asked about the county having more of a say, Mayor Scott said, “For me what we are considering is how we can improve this system.”

Scott said the city “will continue to work with our partners in the county.”

Last month, Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles ordered the state to take charge of the Back River plant to bring it into compliance.

The Maryland Department of the Environment said in a statement that it “has determined that the decline in the proper maintenance and operation of the plant risks catastrophic failures at the plant that may result in environmental harm as well as adverse public health and comfort effects.”

John Lee is a reporter for WYPR covering Baltimore County. @JohnWesleyLee2
Sarah Y. Kim is WYPR’s health and housing reporter. Kim is WYPR's Report for America corps member, and Anthony Brandon Fellow. Kim joined WYPR as a 2020-2021 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. Now in her second year as an RFA corps member, Kim is based in Baltimore City.
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