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City may drop legal challenge against state take over of Back River plant

Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant
Kristen Mosbrucker
The Baltimore City Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant was taken over by the state environmental department in recent months over mismanagement, environmental violations. One of the centrifuges used in the plant to separate water from biosolids was leaking, according to a state report.

A new deal proposed between Baltimore City and the Maryland Department of the Environment would move forward efforts to fix systemic issues at the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant.

If approved by the Board of Estimates, the city would drop a legal challenge filed in April against the state’s move in late March to take over the plant.

“This agreement between MDE and Baltimore City leadership allows all of us to focus on working together to fix the problems at the Back River facility,” state environment secretary Horacio Tablada said in a statement.

The Back River plant is the largest in the state and is designed to discharge up to 180 million gallons of treated wastewater. But two of the four centrifuges used to remove excess water from biosolids on site are not operational.

One has been sitting in a German factory for the past several months waiting to be rebuilt while the other requires a new motor and controls. While the plant has automated processes, most of the valves, pumps and controls don’t work, so the plant is run “in manual mode,” according to a scathing report released by the state on Thursday.

The plant is in a state of disarray, “pumps are plugged with trash, drains are clogged and floors are covered with water or sludge,” according to the state.

City officials claimed that the state surprised leadership by issuing a consent decree to handle improvements at the wastewater plant, according to a motion filed in Baltimore City Circuit Court. And that the city struggled with understaffing and supply chain issues heightened by the coronavirus pandemic, according to the lawsuit.

The new agreement would enable the state to make repairs and improvements at the plant while the city would “cooperate fully” with the state allowing staff to access the entire site. In addition, the city would comply with a cost reimbursement agreement with the state, participate in weekly progress meetings and offer a monthly report for the next six months. The city must lower the volume of nitrogen and phosphorus in the processed wastewater discharged into Back River and eventually drains into the Chesapeake Bay.

The state took over after describing that the city had a “system-wide catastrophic failure to operate and maintain this facility at every level” at the Back River site.

The state is considering a similar agreement for the city-owned Patapsco Wastewater Treatment Plant to bring that site into environmental law compliance.

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott previously said that the issues at both wastewater plants "long predate my administration" but that the city was "committed" to get the site back into environmental compliance.

"This collaboration will ensure our vital wastewater system's integrity, address long-standing critical issues and protect our essential waterways," according to a statement from the Baltimore City Department of Public Works released on Friday evening.

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