Blue Water Baltimore has notified city officials that it may sue over the massive illegal discharges of sewage it discovered earlier this year at the Back River and Patapsco Wastewater Treatment Plants.
The “notice of intent to sue” comes amid talks between the environmental watchdog group and the Baltimore Department of Public Works (DPW) and the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) and preserves the group’s rights to take legal action under the “citizen suit” provisions of the federal Clean Water Act.
“Aggressive and comprehensive action is necessary to ensure. . . as much oversight and collaboration as possible now and in the future,” said Alice Volpitta, Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper at Blue Water. “We want to ensure that this gets resolved quickly and with as little additional financial burden on the city’s taxpayers as possible.”
The notice starts the 60-day clock for the period of time the city has to correct the alleged violations. The group said it welcomes the opportunity to discuss resolution of the matter prior to the initiation of litigation.
But senior attorney Angela Haren, of Chesapeake Legal Alliance that represents Blue Water, noted that the recent violations point to serious environmental harm.
“These two plants are discharging millions of gallons of pollution directly into local waters – in some cases over 400% the permit limits – which threatens public health and the state’s chances of meeting Bay cleanup goals,” Haren said in a prepared statement.
Late on Friday, DPW released its own statement that did not mention a possible lawsuit or Blue Water, but preemptively declared that it has “worked closely” with MDE and corrected many of the violations already.
Blaming “the 2019 ransomware attack on Baltimore City and the COVID-19 pandemic” for management shortcomings at the two treatment plants, the statement said that DPW had devised a corrective action plan after analyzing “the contributing factors to any perceived non-compliance.”
DPW’s press release characterized the violations as “mostly reporting and business process concerns.”
But the watchdog group had a different view based on what it had uncovered. Blue Water initially grew concerned about plant operations at the beginning of the year, when significantly more pollution was turning up on U.S. Environmental Protection Agency compliance databases.
In April and May 2021, the group’s water quality monitoring program detected unusually high bacteria levels in the harbor in the vicinity of the Patapsco Wastewater Treatment Plant effluent discharge – and alerted MDE.
The state’s subsequent site inspections revealed ongoing violations of fecal bacteria, nitrogen, phosphorus and other water quality permit limits.
Such violations. taking place at the two largest treatment plants in Maryland, threaten the state’s ability to reach its goals under the Chesapeake Bay cleanup agreement, Blue Water noted.
Violations of fecal bacteria, nitrogen, phosphorus and other water quality permit limits repeatedly occurred at both treatment plants.
So far, MDE has not said what specific enforcement action it will take following the violations it documented in August.
Meanwhile, the scent of human waste continues to emanate from some local waterways miles away from the sewage treatment plants.
Along the Jones Falls on Falls Road, where crews have been repairing sewer infrastructure near the Baltimore Streetcar Museum, the smell of sewage was powerful on Saturday.
Over the summer, a $845,000 consultant report confirmed what many residents already suspected: Despite the billion-dollar-plus of capital expenditures to comply with a federal consent decree, the city still has a long way to go.
Between 2017 and 2019, the report noted, there were over 1,400 sewage overflows – far exceeding the 100 overflows reported in 2007 and the 200 overflows in 2010.
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