DPW Working Closely with Regulator to Implement Back River Improvements

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Recent public pronouncements about the quality of the treated effluent coming from Baltimore’s Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant (BRWWTP) have implied that untreated sewage is being discharged into Back River. This is not the case. This regional facility that treats wastewater generated by approximately 1.6 million people in the Baltimore Metropolitan Area every day, is delivering highly treated effluent back into the environment. From the very outset the City of Baltimore’s primary objective has been, and will always remain, optimizing performance at the Back River plant.

The State of Maryland requires, under a permit process, that the effluent from wastewater treatment plants meet limits on dissolved oxygen, suspended solids, and nutrients (phosphorus and nitrogen), among other parameters. These strict standards require complex, state-of-the-art facilities to meet permit standards for the protection of Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. The City’s two wastewater treatment plants, Back River and Patapsco, are governed by these discharge permits.

MDE issued a letter to the City in August of 2021 that, based on separate inspection reports of the two plants, violations were occurring that needed to be corrected. The City agrees that it is in the interest of all parties to resolve these issues and remains committed to ensuring that the plants operate in accordance with water quality regulations as soon as possible. To that end, the City has been working closely with MDE, submitting a strategic improvement plan to the State in September of 2021 outlining how compliance will be met.  In addition, the City has reached out to the Maryland Environmental Service (MES) for assistance in expediting the equipment and services needed to make operational corrections. As always, the City welcomes, and indeed has solicited, the assistance of the State at virtually every step of its efforts to collaboratively improve operations at the BRWWTP.

Working With MDE

MDE’s August 23, 2021 letter to the City alleging violations referenced two separate inspection reports and the findings, conducted on May 6, 2021 for PWWTP and June 16, 2021, for BRWWTP. The BRWWTP inspection also yielded a report specific to the plant’s compliance with its stormwater discharge permit.

The alleged violations fell into three categories: Reporting; Business Process; and Treatment. The majority of alleged violations were either in reference to reporting issues (e.g. failure to submit documentation) or business process issues (e.g. noted accumulation of solids on sampling containers). DPW addressed the reporting and business process items expeditiously and also developed a dashboard for consistent tracking and documentation.

On September 17, 2021, DPW prepared and submitted to MDE a Strategic Plan to address treatment related items for each plant. The Plan included short term, mid-term, and long-term actions that DPW was undertaking to ensure compliance with the effluent limits at both plants. Prior to submitting the Plan to MDE, DPW requested and was granted emergency authorization to procure the necessary parts and equipment as well as to secure staff augmentation contracts with vendors.

Within a week of submitting the Plan, DPW held a virtual meeting with MDE and provided general updates on the various issues contributing to the less-than-optimal performance at the plants. These included staffing shortages; the COVID-19 pandemic that exacerbated these pre-existing staffing shortages; increased maintenance backlog; as well as significant supply chain delays affecting parts, supplies, and equipment acquisitions.

On October 13, 2021, DPW began bi-weekly technical meetings with MDE staff. The purpose of these meetings was to provide updates on progress and provide a forum for discussion and input as we worked through solutions. In parallel, the City’s legal team worked with MDE lawyers to begin negotiating the terms of a consent decree. That process continues today and although the original intent was to establish the consent decree by the end of 2021, due to circumstances beyond DPW’s control, the process has taken longer than expected.

Taking Corrective Action

Through the latter part of 2021 and into the first couple of months of 2022, DPW made progress in executing various corrective activities and securing some staffing support. Although this progress was encouraging, long-standing and embedded challenges, specifically sludge handling (the solids portion of typical wastewater flow), continued to pose a barrier to a full and permanent turnaround. High levels of solids and difficulty in effective removal at the beginning of the treatment process translated to higher levels of nutrients in the plants’ effluent. No solids are in the effluents released into Back River or Patapsco. As DPW enlisted the support of nationally recognized wastewater treatment experts to troubleshoot, it kept MDE abreast of these issues and communicated to MDE what was believed to be reasonable timeframes for course-correction. DPW also informed MDE about the continuous dialogue with DPW’s 3rd party solids handling vendor and the impact that the vendor’s inability to sufficiently process solids was having on DPW’s operations.

On March 4, 2022, MDE issued Information Requests for Back River and Patapsco to detail the various corrective measures, many of which were the subject of the bi-weekly technical meetings. DPW responded quickly, provided some of the short-term deliverables, and engaged a 3rd party consulting firm for the purpose of preparing one of the key deliverables – a Certified Engineering Evaluation and Report that is due to MDE by June 6, 2022.

On March 22, 2022, MDE visited Back River for an inspection. Subsequent to that inspection, on March 24, MDE issued an Order pursuant to Title 9-252(a) of the Environment Article, ordering the City to submit within 48-hours documentary evidence of Back River’s full compliance with the NPDES permit. Based on the circumstances already described, and as detailed in the Strategic Plan submitted to MDE, it would not have been possible to comply with this order in such a short timeframe given months of discussion regarding the longstanding issues of the plants. As such, on March 27, subsequent to a follow-up inspection done on March 26, MDE issued a Directive to the Maryland Environmental Service (MES) to “take charge of the BRWWTP, including operations, maintenance, and improvement functions.”

On March 28, MDE, MES, and DPW personnel met at Back River to discuss the Directive and path forward. MDE and MES communicated the need to maintain a collaborative approach and recognized the impact that the Directive has had on DPW employees. They stated that MES’s role would not be to replace DPW staff responsible for the day-to-day operations. Instead, it would supplement staffing, provide guidance, assess conditions, and serve as an expeditor in the procurement of equipment, supplies, and even professional services, as needed.

Improving Performance

It should be noted that DPW personnel were diligently working to address the plants’ performance issues prior to the notification from MDE in August 2021, and requested and was granted emergency authorization to procure the necessary parts and equipment and secure staff augmentation contracts with vendors on September 14, 2021. Unfortunately, the City has been unable to, as yet, adequately compensate for the increasing numbers of seasoned staff retiring, as it competes with peer utilities and private sector employers for staffing. The departure of much-needed expertise, the lack of adequate and qualified candidates to replace retiring employees, and the national supply chain issues in procuring the needed parts and equipment, which many utilities face, are all contributing factors to the delays in addressing the plants’ performance.   

The Mayor is fully apprised of the facts and circumstances and personally discussed the situation with Secretary Grumbles last Friday evening. The Director responded to the violations that he inherited within nine weeks of his appointment by instituting enterprise-wide changes to address DPW’s actions, executed an emergency procurement authorization to start addressing DPW’s staffing gaps, equipment, and need for parts. In addition, the Director has procured contract services, and produced a strategic plan to address the violations, instituted an enterprise compliance program to ensure quality assurance, mandated a full assessment via a gap analysis, and more recently ensured the City funded the millions of dollars needed for the remediation of the plants. DPW is committed to continuing to assess and address conditions at Back River and Patapsco plants, ensuring that it employs a strategic approach to managing and operating the plants to guarantee the City has a permanent fix to the various issues the plants face today.  We welcome the MDE and MES collaboration going forward.  


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James E. Bentley II
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