Maryland’s largest wastewater treatment plant, the Baltimore Back River Sewage Treatment Plant, failed to meet the terms of its discharge permit, leading the state to order the temporary takeover of the Dundalk facility. When Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles announced the unprecedented move on Sunday, city officials were warned about polluting emissions from the factory. Even Mayor Brandon Scott has acknowledged chronic problems at the city-run factories that have led to massive discharges leading to elevated bacterial and nutrient loads, not only in local waters, but eventually in rivers where rivers flow into them. Chesapeake Bay.
Under the circumstances, Secretary Grumbles’ decision to have the Maryland Environmental Services Agency intervene at the city’s expense was very reasonable. And, at the very least, it shows exactly what one expects of state regulators—transparency and oversight in the public interest. Ironically, just a year ago, when Roy McGrath stepped down as MES executive director to become Governor Larry Hogan’s CEO, lawmakers were generous It was MES that was on the other side of the equation when the $233,647 award was questioned to government officials. staff in 2020. Mr McGrath is currently expected to stand trial in June on federal criminal charges related to the “severance” package. This is also when Secretary Grumbles expects a full report on Back River’s performance, staffing, maintenance and equipment.
However, Back River’s question is: what’s next? Of course, MES can fully determine the needs not only of Back River, but also of Baltimore’s other wastewater treatment facility, the Patapsco plant at Wagner’s Point. It has also been criticized for illegal discharges, not only by the state government but also by environmental advocates such as Blue Water Baltimore. The more fundamental question is whether Baltimore, a city with huge needs outside of public infrastructure, should be given the sole authority to run the public water and sewer system not only for the city but for Baltimore County.
Going private has been discussed before, but it is a non-starter. City voters wisely approved a ban on water privatization two years ago, fearing that losing public control would lead to higher bills, especially for low-income city dwellers. However, the failure to keep up with required maintenance, as well as some serious billing issues, has resulted in some clients being overcharged and others not being charged at all (according to a recently reported audit, which included 230 at the Ritz-Carlton Residences The $10,000 freebie) of the city’s Department of Public Works) did not inspire confidence in city oversight.
But there is a third possibility. What if a regional authority was formed along the lines of the Washington Suburban Sanitation Commission, which has administered water and sewer services for Prince George’s and Montgomery counties since 1918? This will keep vital services in public hands, but it will also provide a fresh start, presumably with some additional funding from state and federal sources. There is even a certain historical connection there. One of those who helped launch the WSSC a century ago was Abel Wolman, a Baltimore-born and Johns Hopkins-trained engineer whose pioneering research led to the standardized chlorination of drinking water, greatly improving public health.
Clearly, challenges remain. Regardless of who runs the system, aging city water and sewage pipes still require significant investment. Both Baltimore and Baltimore County have pledged to spend at least $1.6 billion on system upgrades. But it’s not unreasonable to expect the Hogan government or its successor to provide some “carrots” rather than just “sticks” to improve water quality, especially given the reluctance to spend money for various purposes due to budget surpluses Burn a hole in the state legislature’s pocket. Of course, this also requires a degree of trust between the elected leaders and their counterparts in Towson.
All of this seems entirely possible, but it is prudent to investigate the issue further. We would urge Mayor Scott and Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olzewski Jr. to consider doing so — and ASAP. If cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay requires cleaning up the back river, then cleaning up how the Baltimore region can best manage water and sewage services should also be part of the solution.
Baltimore Sun editorial writers provide opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.
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