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State Agencies, Baltimore City Agree To Fixes At Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant

BALTIMORE (WJZ) -- The Maryland Department of the Environment and Baltimore City have reached an agreement allowing state officials to make repairs at the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant, months after the agency seized control of the facility in response to pollution and compliance issues.

Under the agreement, the city must permit staffers with the Maryland Environmental Service make necessary improvements and repairs at the facility.

"The Maryland Department of the Environment is committed to working with MES and Baltimore City leadership to ensure progress in improving the Back River plant's performance and protecting public health and the environment," said Maryland Environment Secretary Horacio Tablada. "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."

Baltimore will have to reimburse the cost of the fixes and participate in weekly meetings with both state agencies to discuss bringing the plant back into compliance, and over the next six months, the city will have to publish monthly reports tracking the project's progress.

In March, then-Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles directed the Maryland Environmental Service to take over operations of the facility, the largest of its kind in the state, to halt all "illegal discharges" from the plant.

Regulators "determined that the decline in the proper maintenance and operation of the Plant risks catastrophic failures at the Plant that may result in environmental harm as well as adverse public health and comfort effects," according to state officials.

The Baltimore Department of Public Works has defended its operation of the Back River plant -- claiming a sample taken nearby did not include raw sewage as was alleged -- and said it wasn't given enough time to make changes at the building before the state takeover.

According to a report released this month by the Maryland Environmental Service, the plant's ability to process "total suspended solids" fell by 70% after a piece of equipment became clogged, creating buildups in nine of the 11 primary settling tanks, where "primary sludge" is removed from the wastewater.

Separately, equipment used in the "dewatering process," which isolates biosolids that are then recycled as soil amendment and fertilizer, did not work properly, the report stated.

State officials concluded the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant "has fallen into disrepair over the last several years and has experienced failures at nearly every level."

But regulators went on to say the issues at the facility "are not insurmountable."

Situated on 466 acres near Dundalk, the plant is designed to process 180 million gallons of wastewater per day and serves 1.3 million residents in Baltimore City and Baltimore County, according to the report.

The agreement between the state agencies and the city is subject to the approval of Baltimore City Board of Estimates.

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