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Fresh Water, Foul Sewage

Environmentby Mark Reutter1:31 pmFeb 16, 20240

City to enter into $50 million contract for private management of Back River biosolids

In a surprise move, Baltimore brings in a Colorado company to take over the plant’s long-troubled operations

Above: At the Back River sewage treatment plant, a secondary clarifier filled with algae, reed grasses and other vegetation. (Maryland Department of the Environment report, 2022)

On the eve of the second anniversary of the state’s temporary takeover of the Back River sewage plant in 2022, Baltimore City is calling on a private company to manage its key facilities.

The so-far-unannounced, no-bid contract with Operations Management International (OMI) will start at $50 million and could increase to $100 million over an eight-year period.

The Greenwood Village, Colorado, company will operate and maintain the plant’s sprawling  network of centrifuges, digesters and gravity sludge thickeners as well as perform all laboratory testing and file compliance reports to the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Approval of the contract, which Acting Public Works Director Richard Luna signed six months ago, is scheduled before next week’s Board of Estimates meeting.

Located in Dundalk, the Back River plant is responsible for processing an average of 130 million gallons of sewage a day from the metropolitan area.

It has been plagued by malfunctioning equipment and poor personnel management for years.

Back River’s sewage sludge problems were well known for years (3/20/23)

Advocates call sludge-clogged Back River sewage plant “a ticking time bomb” (3/30/23)

A $430 million “headworks” facility, hailed as a panacea for the plant’s problems, was opened just months before Blue Water Baltimore documented in 2021 widespread dumping of pollutants into Back River, a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay.

Illegal discharges of phosphorus, nitrogen and other chemicals came from the plant’s failure to process biosolids (aka sludge) that clogged its machinery and left as many as nine of 11 primary settling tanks out of order.

The takeover by MDE in March 2022 led to temporary management by the Maryland Environmental Service in an uneasy alliance with the Baltimore Department of Public Works (DPW).

That arrangement ended a year ago after the city showed that it was back in compliance with state pollution permits.

An inoperable settling tank due to backed-up solids at Baltimore's Back River Waste Water Treatment Plant, (Report om 3/22/22 inspection, Maryland Department of the Environment)

A settling tank made inoperable by backed-up biosolids at the Back River plant. (3/22/22 inspection, Maryland Department of the Environment)

Staff Shortages Blamed

DPW says operations must now be turned over to a private company because of lack of staff.

Back River is “experiencing long-term severe staffing shortages that challenges its ability to stay in regulatory compliance,” according to the agency.

OMI will staff the biosolids facilities 24 hours a day and take over safety, maintenance, operations and job-training functions.

Part of its mandate will be to keep floors and equipment, found by state inspectors often covered with debris, free of screenings, sludge and plant growth.

”Five years is the minimum timeframe in which this process can be completed,” according to DPW.

OMI will staff the biosolids facilities 24 hours a day and take over maintenance, operations, safety and job training.

In its first year, OMI will be paid a $5.5 million base and transition fee, plus another $5.3 million for chemicals and repairs.

The five-year $50 million contract can be extended for three more years at a cost “not to exceed” $100 million, according to documents signed by Luna and OMI President Greg Fischer.

The contract comes a month after the Baltimore Regional Water Governance Task Force declined to take a position on whether water and sewage operations in the Baltimore region should be removed from DPW and turned over to a regional authority.

Impetus for the formation of the group came in part from concerns about DPW’s ability to run Back River and the nearby Patapsco Wastewater Treatment Plant amid years of environmental violations.

Baltimore City owns and operates the plants and other key water infrastructure, which also serve residents in Baltimore County and other neighboring jurisdictions.

The task force, headed by Baltimore Comptroller Bill Henry, recommended that the state legislature appoint a new working group to study the financial, labor and equity issues involved in a potential transfer.

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