Saturday morning was beautiful on Back River as we left Diamond Point not long after dawn and cruised toward the Back River Waste Water Treatment Plant on a small pontoon boat.
Desiree Greaver, project manager of the Back River Restoration Committee, was talking about the pleasures of living near this Chesapeake Bay tributary, eight miles east of downtown Baltimore, when we abruptly came to a pier that empties the effluent from the sewage plant.
After passing through acres of mechanical and biochemical cleaning processes, the discharged wastewater at Back River should be crystal clear and without a noticeable smell.
Chris Kvech, a volunteer from Middle River, dipped a stick into the water.
Not once or twice, but a dozen times he poked into the liquid, and each time it came up with the same brown/orange foamy glop that attracted gnats.
“This looks like poop, and it smells like a porta potty. Really disgusting,” exclaimed Greaver.
Not Coming Clean
Stepping back from the dripping stick, she said, “This is what we’ve been saying over and over – the government isn’t coming clean with the truth.”
She was reacting to a press release, issued last Thursday by the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), saying that a laboratory analysis of floating material found by Greaver’s group is “NOT raw sewage” (in bold lettering) from the treatment plant.
Instead, communications director Mark Shaffer said, the agency “suspects” the tested substance could be “an accumulation of excessive suspended solids, NOT raw sewage, intermittently escaping from the treatment plant.”
Or it could be “bottom muck brought to the surface by low tide, wind and agitation from the sewage discharge,”
Or it could be “a combination of both.”
“Or,” Greaver ad-libbed, gesturing at the slimy stick, “could it be a new form of algae discovered by MDE? Poopy algae?”
(The Brew has never described the discharges into Back River as “raw sewage.” We have instead cited inspection reports and personal accounts of equipment malfunctions and the release of un-permitted high levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, grease and other pollutants into the waterway.)
Trip down Back River
On Saturday morning, two days after the press release, the stench of rotten eggs mingled with a sight of soaring egrets as we passed under the Eastern Boulevard bridge.
MDE says the “strong odor” coming from the samples it has tested is similar to “oxygen-depleted marsh mud” – and that odor got noticeably stronger as we approached the concrete pier.
Beneath the pier is the discharge pipe from the plant. It daily empties an average of 120 million gallons of supposedly clean wastewater flushed down the toilets, wash basins and factory drains of 1.3 million Baltimore area customers.
Near the pier, the water boiled up with small bubbles rising to the surface. As we got closer, swarms of “midges,” the gnats that famously plague Back River during the summer, hovered above the foaming water.
Waving away the gnats, we saw what the pipe had discharged overnight – a tide of thick black liquid that looked like rough sandpaper from some angles and frozen ice from others.
Regardless of whether this was raw sewage or “an accumulation of excessive suspended solids,” the effluent was not fit for human health or marine life under the Clean Water Act, a law on the federal books since 1972.
Last month, spurred by Restoration Committee and Blue Water Baltimore reports of dead fish and “volcanoes of black stuff” in the river, MDE assumed control of the treatment plant from Baltimore City.
The state takeover was meant to avert a “catastrophic failure” that could place public health in jeopardy, said MDE Secretary Ben Grumbles, under pressure by Republican Delegate Robin Grammer Jr. (Middle River) to resign over his agency’s handling of the plant’s problems.
“No sense of urgency”
With the Back River works now its responsibility, MDE insisted that the effluent recently discharged is “not raw sewage.”
Baltimore City followed up this “good news” on Good Friday with its own press release:
“No Raw Sewage Found in the Back River Plant Outfall” was the headline from the Department of Public Works, which went on to say that any characterization to the contrary was “absolutely not factual.”
“They’re playing with words instead of fixing the problem,” Greaver said as we returned on the boat. “I realize this could take time, but there’s no sense of urgency from our officials. It’s like, this isn’t our problem. Or the river will heal itself.”
Greaver looks down at her cellphone and checks the MDE website.
“This agency is supposed to monitor for water quality and send out advisories to the public if there are problems. But, look, there’s nothing on Back River. No alerts, no nothing.
She said that “people who live along Back River need to know when the water is bad. They fish all the time on the Eastern Avenue Bridge. In the summer, kids swim at Cox’s Point Park right across from the plant.
“Sometimes,” she continued, “I get so disheartened I want to stop. But my husband says I gotta do. It’s important for the Restoration Committee to fight for the river and for the people living here.”
Recent Baltimore Brew stories on the plant: