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Fresh Water, Foul Sewage

Environmentby Mark Reutter5:10 pmMay 10, 20220

Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles leaves under a cloud

His seven-year stint ends amid criticism over lax enforcement and mismanaged sewage treatment plants that have polluted Baltimore area waterways

Above: Ben Grumbles served as Maryland’s top environmental officer for seven years. (Municipal Water Leader Magazine)

Ben Grumbles, under fire for ignoring the mounting pollution problems at the Back River Waste Water Treatment Plant, announced his resignation as Maryland’s secretary of the environment yesterday.

“I’m glad there is accountability,” said Delegate Robin L. Grammer Jr. (R-Middle River), who had called on Gov. Larry Hogan to remove Grumbles.

The legislator’s request followed reports in March of massive discharges of semi-treated sewage into Back River from the Baltimore City-operated plant.

“Hopefully, the Maryland Department of the Environment will return to the straight and narrow – something that has not occurred over the last several years,” Grammer told The Brew, noting that Grumbles had acknowledged he was aware of high bacteria levels and other problems at the facility dating back to 2019.

A similar deterioration of water quality standards has afflicted the city’s Patapsco treatment plant on Asiatic Avenue in Fairfield, an issue exposed last summer by Blue Water Baltimore.

MDE’s own inspection reports have detailed broken equipment at Back River – plus treatment tanks clogged with vegetation and floating solids – that Grumbles admitted had left the facility susceptible to “catastrophic failure.”

Solids buildup, with growing vegetation, in biological reactor. Back River Waste Water Treatment Plant, 3/22/22 inspection. (Maryland Department of the Environment)

Vegetation growing in a biological reactor at Back River seen during a March 22, 2022 state inspection. BELOW: Orange-brown gunk suspended in the effluent coming out of the plant’s outflow pipe into Back River on April 16. (MDE, Mark Reutter)

back river glob on stick

Deputy Replaces Grumbles

Hogan announced that Horacio Tablada, deputy secretary under Grumbles, will serve as the agency’s new head, and Suzanne Dorsey, assistant secretary, will move up to the deputy’s slot.

One of Tablada’s top priorities, Grammer said, will be dealing with Back River, the state’s largest treatment facility that was placed under state control through the quasi-public Maryland Environmental Service.

The new management is tasked with developing a compliance plan for the facility and is expected to issue bi-weekly progress reports starting on June 6.

“There is a clear need to establish better community relations. The agency can’t keep environmental groups and the people living near the plant at arm’s length,” Grammer said.

In a press release, Hogan said Grumbles will leave on June 1 to become executive director of the Environmental Council of the States.

Under Grumbles’ leadership, “we have made great strides to achieve our Chesapeake Bay restoration goals, continued to reduce childhood lead poisoning in our state and implemented one of the most aggressive and balanced climate programs in the nation,” Hogan said.

“Dramatic nosedive”

A top aide, Harry E. Hunsicker III, resigned as chief of water pollution compliance in March.

Hunsicker left shortly before five environmental organizations issued a joint report saying that water pollution enforcement “took a dramatic nosedive” under the Hogan administration.

The report found that MDE had identified 70% fewer pollution violations than during the governorship of Martin O’Malley, took 67% fewer enforcement actions, inspected 30% fewer sites and collected 47% less in monetary fines.

From the 2022 CAP Enforcement Scorecard (chesapeakeaccountability.org)

From the Chesapeake Accountability Project report.

The report faulted the regulatory approach developed by Grumbles in which non-compliant holders of a state water permit could submit material saying corrective action had been taken without apparent verification. Adding to MDE’s problems was its increased reliance on local jurisdictions to enforce environmental cleanup laws.

Grumbles said the agency was hobbled by a large number of retirements and unfilled positions, especially the drinking water safety office.

Responding to a federal report documenting the shortage of water inspectors, Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh called on Grumbles and Hogan last December to address the problem “to prevent public health crises like the tragedy we saw in Flint, Michigan.”

Recent Brew stories on Back River and MDE:

Baltimore’s poor management at root of newly discovered sewage outflows into the Bay (9/1/21)

Maryland’s chief of water pollution enforcement departs after a string of embarrassing incidents (3/11/22)

After reports of dead fish and “volcanoes of black stuff” in Back River, MDE cracks down on sewage treatment plant (3/25/22)

What the wastewater looks – and smells – like coming out of the Back River sewage plant (4/19/22).

FULL INDEX of Brew coverage of Back River sewage, DPW and MDE is here.

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