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Maryland files lawsuit over pollution at Baltimore wastewater plants

Maryland’s attorney general has filed a new lawsuit aimed at halting pollution at Baltimore’s two wastewater treatment plants, which have come under increasing scrutiny for violations of clean water regulations.

Attorney General Brian E. Frosh filed the lawsuit in Baltimore Circuit Court. The complaint alleges that the Back River and Patapsco wastewater treatment plants, which are both operated by Baltimore city, have repeatedly violated their discharge permits.

“The violations outlined in our complaint allege significant and repeated violations of state and federal water pollution laws, endangering our waterways and drinking water,” Frosh said in a news release. “Wastewater treatment plants are critical in our efforts to improve the health of the (Chesapeake) Bay and they must adhere to state permits and environmental laws.”

The lawsuit, brought on behalf of Maryland’s Department of the Environment, follows a federal suit filed last month by Blue Water Baltimore, a clean water advocacy group.

The group sued under the federal Clean Water Act, which allows private citizens to file lawsuits to enforce anti-pollution laws. The Blue Water Baltimore lawsuit argued that neither the Environmental Protection Agency nor the state of Maryland were taking action to halt the pollution or pursuing administrative penalties.

According to the lawsuit, the Patapsco plant violated its permit limits for pollutants like nitrogen and phosphorus 133 times, for a total of 899 “exceedance days” between January 2017 and September 2021.

During the same period, the Back River plant exceeded its permit limits 138 times, for a total of 1,611 exceedance days, the complaint claims.

The Attorney General’s Office said Friday that Maryland’s Department of the Environment has issued two notice-of-intent-to-sue letters under the Clean Water Act, which preserves the agency’s right to intervene in the federal lawsuit if needed.

The city has not filed a response to the Blue Water Baltimore lawsuit, but it joined a motion to put the case on hold temporarily “to allow the parties to meet to discuss a prompt resolution of this matter,” court records show.

Angela Haren, a senior attorney for Chesapeake Legal Alliance, said the Attorney General’s filing was expected and that Blue Water Baltimore has been “working cooperatively” with the city and the state Department of the Environment.

“Ultimately, the court venue here is not a primary concern; our goal is to work with MDE and the City to develop a resolution that will address the pollution concerns as quickly as possible,” Haren said.

The state’s new lawsuit alleges violations, including failing to report sampling results and noncompliance; failing to comply with sampling protocols and to maintain sampling equipment; failing to provide adequate staff to operate the plants; and failing to conduct needed maintenance.

The suit seeks an injunction that would require the city to take action and stop the discharges of pollutants from the wastewater plants.

The troubled plants have come under intensifying scrutiny for their handling of wastewater, which can harm aquatic ecosystems and cause illness in humans if not treated properly.

Blue Water Baltimore said in August that it had shared information with the state from its water quality monitoring program, which led state inspectors to discover “major violations” at both plants.

Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles said in a statement Friday that the agency’s top enforcement priority is getting the plants back into compliance.

“We’re filing the lawsuit and continuing to increase oversight of the city’s Department of Public Works since we uncovered the full scope of the problem, and we’re doing so in coordination with nongovernmental organizations that have already filed suit and share our goal for protecting local water quality,” Grumbles said.