Maryland state parks desperately need a boost in funding to hire more permanent staff and update old infrastructure if they want to meet growing demands for park access, state park leaders told lawmakers on Tuesday.
Due to years of low funding and understaffing, park rangers in state parks are overburdened and need support, state park leaders said.
For instance, it took 500 hours for staff to remove nearly 10,000 pounds of trash along a half-mile stretch of the Gunpowder River in Gunpowder Falls State Park in Baltimore County last summer, Dean Hughes, president of the Maryland Rangers Association, told the State Park Investment Commission Tuesday.
“We’re seeing how the sheer number of people is causing irreparable damage to sensitive environments,” he said.
State parks also are losing some of their rangers, who work at or near state minimum wage ($11.75), to the private sector and parks in Anne Arundel, Howard and Baltimore counties which offer better wages, Hughes said.
Although some park rangers do leave state parks to work for county parks, most of the time they think, “this is just not worth it,” said Chris Czarra, a park ranger at Patapsco Valley State Park and a member of Maryland Professional Employees Council Local 6197.
Czarra said that park rangers want yearly wage increases and to be recognized as first responders since they are trained to provide some of the same emergency services that emergency medical technicians and police provide.
“Every day, you don’t know what you’re going to be dealing with and your plans are always being upended by circumstances in the park,” he said.
To meet growing demands, new state parks have opened but without additional permanent staff, Hughes said.
For example, Wolf Den Run State Park in Garrett County opened in 2019 but is managed by the same staff responsible for Herrington Manor and Swallow Falls State Park.
And if a park ranger is on sick leave, there is no trained staff person to substitute, Czarra said.
Meanwhile, park visitors increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Unrealistic workloads and low wages make a career within the park service an unattractive option to future stewards, Hughes said.
“The current trajectory of our state parks is simply not sustainable, and we’re in desperate need of a major investment to meet our state’s growing demand for outdoor recreation,” Hughes said.
There is also a disparity between the resources of state parks and national parks. Assateague State Park only has 10 permanent employees, but Assateague Island National Seashore has 50 permanent employees and, with seasonal staff, twice as many on hand in summer, Hughes said.
With an annual operating budget of around $50 million for Maryland state parks and with 21 million visitors last year, spending around $2 per visitor is not enough, Hughes said.
Mel Poole, president of Friends of Maryland State Parks, a volunteer organization, recommends that the state park system add at least 100 permanent staff positions to address the pre-pandemic visitation levels alone.
Poole also estimated a backlog of $100-million worth of maintenance work that was delayed and must be addressed in next year’s budget.
Park rangers want funding to upgrade bathrooms, sewage treatment systems and replace out-of-date maintenance equipment. Some is so outdated that it costs more to pay rangers overtime to repair it than it would to buy new equipment, Czarra said.
Funding is even more dire for local park systems, especially in Baltimore, said Frank Lance, president of the Parks and People Foundation, a non-profit that seeks to improve the quality of life in Baltimore by increasing access to green space.
Lance said he regularly meets with the director of Baltimore City Recreation and Parks Department to figure out how to make a difference in disenfranchised communities. “But from a funding source, we’re trying to make bricks without straw,” he said.
Joel Dunn, president of the nonprofit Chesapeake Conservancy, also recommended that the state develop a long-term capital budget plan separate from Program Open Space, which is run by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and provides financial assistance to local governments to support recreational land and open space areas.
The federal Great American Outdoors Act that passed last year allocates $900 million annually to the Land and Water Conservation Fund and provides up to $9.5 billion over five years to address the maintenance backlog at national parks. Dunn suggested that lawmakers could follow this national funding model for Maryland state parks.
Hughes said he would like to see the State Park Investment Commission bring about progressive policies for state parks as the Kirwan Commission did for education with its landmark Blueprint for Maryland’s Future.
By Elizabeth Shwe
The weather gods must have known that the greater conservation movement of the Eastern Shore was gathering on Friday night to honor Beverly and Richard Tilghman as the Horn Point Lab’s Chesapeake Champions for 2021.
With clear skies, no humidity, and 70-degree weather, over two hundred scientists, environmentalists, and patrons of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science gathered at the Tidewater Inn courtyard on Thursday to pay tribute to the Tilghmans and their legacy of land and water conservation over the years.
And in keeping with the Tilghmans ongoing support of Horn Point Lab students and their research, several of those grad students were able to highlight their work at the Dorchester campus. Those reports were both moving and encouraging as these young leaders outlined what their projects contributed to the health of the Chesapeake Bay and beyond.
But eventually, it was the Tilghmans turn to address the crowd, and our assigned spy was able to capture Richard’s remarks at the end of a very joyful moment for the Mid-Shore.
This video is approximately three minutes in length.
Ocean City leaders used a public hearing Tuesday night on proposals to expand offshore wind-generated electricity production along Maryland’s coast for a last-ditch attempt to push the proposed turbine installations farther out to sea.
But they found themselves badly outnumbered during a three-hour virtual hearing of the Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC) on two companies’ bids for the next phase of offshore wind energy development in the state: About three-quarters of the people testifying favored expanding the lease area in federal waters.
Two energy companies, Ørsted and US Wind, are awaiting final U.S. government approval to build the first phase of Maryland’s offshore wind development off the coast of Ocean City. But even before the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management weighs in, state officials are seeking bidders for the second phase of wind development; both US Wind and Ørsted are interested in winning that contract as well.
But even as wind energy installations seem likely to appear up and down the Atlantic coast over the next decade, some Ocean City political and business leaders continue to insist that giant turbines located 12-20 miles offshore will damage views from the shore, jeopardizing tourism, real estate values and the local economy.
State Sen. Mary Beth Carozza (R-Lower Shore) urged the PSC to “preserve and protect the Ocean City way of life.”
“We support clean energy in Maryland, including offshore wind, but we stand in opposition to the size and location of the turbines,” she said.
The simple solution, Carozza and other officials argued, is to push the wind energy projects farther offshore, noting that similar moves are being made in other East Coast states. But designated federal lease areas off the coast of Maryland and Delaware only go so far, meaning moving them farther offshore isn’t practical.
Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan said he did not know why, with the federal approval process for the first phase of the development moving so slowly, the PSC seemed so eager to award a lease for the second phase.
“Why would the PSC rush to [approve another lease] with so many unanswered questions?” he asked, adding that the impacts of the wind turbines on the Ocean City economy would be “irreversible.”
“We can’t rely on [the wind energy companies] to protect the future of Ocean City,” Meehan said.
Danny Robinson, an Ocean City restaurant owner, laid out his opposition in more dramatic terms. He said he informally polls his customers and hasn’t found a single one who favors the wind projects.
“I understand that we in this little community are the only thing standing between the big wind cartel and billions of dollars in government subsidies,” Robinson said, calling the projects “a plunder of our resources” rather than “a solution for climate change.”
“I don’t want to have to explain to my grandchildren what a sunrise used to look like in Ocean City, Maryland,” he said.
But dozens of people testified in favor of the expansion plans, saying that Ocean City might cease to exist altogether if renewable power projects aren’t advanced aggressively.
“The fact of the matter is, if we don’t act now, there will be no Ocean City,” said Cindy Dillon, a resident of Ocean Pines.
Kathy Phillips, director of the Assateague Coastal Trust, said the current debate over offshore wind reminds her of the furor in Ocean City over beach replenishment in the 1980’s, when some residents feared that higher dunes would block views from low-level condominiums. Instead, she said, they have become natural treasures that attract red foxes and other wildlife.
“Twenty years from now, our offshore wind farms will be claimed proudly by new residents and tourists,” Phillips predicted.
Representatives from labor unions, regional business organizations, Baltimore County government and the Tradepoint Atlantic industrial development near Dundalk touted the economic development benefits of offshore wind and said the projects would provide thousands of construction jobs in Maryland and hundreds of maintenance jobs in the Ocean City area. In August, US Wind announced ambitious plans to establish a manufacturing operation and steel plant at Tradepoint Atlantic, the site of a former Bethlehem Steel factory.
The Public Service Commission will hold a second virtual hearing on the two wind companies’ bids to expand offshore wind on Thursday at 6 p.m. The commission will take written testimony on the proposals until Nov. 19. The agency has promised to make a decision on the bids by Dec. 18.
By Josh Kurtz
After years of complaints from its neighbors, state regulators have ordered a poultry rendering plant on Maryland’s Eastern Shore to curtail its pollution of a Chesapeake Bay tributary and say they will crack down on environmental violations there.
The Maryland Department of the Environment last week released a new draft wastewater permit for the Valley Proteins Inc. facility in Linkwood that would tighten limits on what it now releases after treatment into the Transquaking River.
“Our proposed actions mean cleaner water and a healthier watershed, with greater accountability for environmental violations,” MDE Secretary Ben Grumbles said in a Sept. 15 press release. The release said the agency would seek a “significant financial penalty” as well as corrective actions for a series of alleged water and air pollution violations at the plant.
Environmental activists welcomed the MDE’s announcement, but said it was long overdue.
“It’s good to see some movement to protect water quality,” said Matt Pluta, head of Riverkeeper programs for the nonprofit group ShoreRivers. “This is what we expected from them all along.”
Local residents and environmental activists have complained for years that the state hasn’t taken steps needed to improve water quality in the Transquaking, which flows through Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge before emptying into Fishing Bay and then the Chesapeake Bay just above Tangier Sound.
The river has been classified for more than 20 years as impaired by nutrient pollution. The rendering plant is the river’s largest single source of such pollution, which fuels algae blooms and reduces oxygen levels in the water below what’s healthy for fish and other aquatic animals.
The state has allowed the facility to operate under a discharge permit that expired in 2006, despite a federal law requiring such permits be renewed every five years. Pluta called it the oldest “zombie,” or expired, permit in Maryland. “MDE has let it continue operating without updated [pollution] controls for 15 years,” he said.
In April, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, ShoreRivers and Dorchester Citizens for Planned Growth jointly notified Valley Proteins that they intended to sue it for violating the federal Clean Water Act by repeatedly exceeding permit limits on its discharge of pollutants such as fecal coliform, nitrogen, phosphorus and ammonia.
The plant takes up to 4 million pounds of chicken entrails and feathers daily from poultry processing plants, according to MDE documents, and renders them into pet food. It’s currently permitted to discharge up to 150,000 gallons of treated wastewater daily, and it uses an air scrubber to control odors.
In the draft permit, the MDE has set caps on how much nitrogen and phosphorus the plant can discharge, regardless of volume. Those caps represent a 43% and 79% reduction from what is permitted now. To stay within those limits, the plant will have to upgrade its treatment, even at the current maximum discharge volume of 150,000 gallons per day.
But in 2014, the company sought state approval to increase its maximum allowable discharge to 575,000 gallons daily in order to expand production. Local residents and environmental groups objected, arguing that the facility already was polluting the water, and the issue has been unresolved until now.
Earlier this year, the MDE disclosed in budget documents that it intended to give Valley Proteins a $13 million state grant to help upgrade its treatment facility so it could reduce its nutrient discharge while expanding operations. The grant would have covered more than 80% of the estimated cost of the overhaul. It would have been the first such grant to a private company from the state’s Bay Restoration Fund, which has been used primarily to upgrade municipal sewage systems.
MDE officials contended that the grant was warranted because it would help the plant achieve enhanced nutrient removal in its wastewater treatment operation, the same standard applied to large municipal sewage plants. But the General Assembly cut the allowable grant amount to $7.6 million after critics contended that the private company based in Winchester, Va., could afford to pick up a larger share of the tab.
Now, though, amid allegations of pollution violations at the plant, the MDE has decided not to provide the grant to Valley Proteins.
“The company has a lot of explaining to do, and the competition for [Bay Restoration Fund] dollars among other applicants is continuing to grow,” Grumbles said in a statement emailed in response to queries.
The draft permit would give the company the option in the next few years to boost its wastewater output to accommodate increased production. But it would still have to adhere to the annual caps set on the amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus it can discharge. That would necessitate upgrades completely at the company’s own expense.
With the state grant off the table, Michael A. Smith, Valley Proteins vice chairman, indicated that the company would forego the overhaul the MDE says it would need to expand operations.
Instead, Smith said, the company plans to make less costly upgrades, which should be enough to meet the new nutrient limits with its current volume discharge.
“So there will be capital improvements but not to the magnitude it could have been had the funding come through,” Smith said.
Activists said they are guardedly optimistic but intend to keep pressing the MDE on tightening the permit.
“With an upgraded plant, we can expect lower levels of nutrients and [other] pollution,” ShoreRivers’ Pluta said. “We can only hope,” he added, that the plant does what’s needed to achieve enhanced nutrient removal.
Fred Pomeroy, president of Dorchester Citizens for Planned Growth, said he was pleased after years of advocacy to “finally get affirmation from MDE that the longstanding pollution issues will be addressed in the Transquaking River.”
And Alan Girard, Eastern Shore director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said activists were encouraged by the MDE’s announcement “after more than a decade of inaction. However, appropriate actions must be taken in response to the company’s repeated violations of the current permit and to ensure there is a commitment from Valley Proteins to comply with new pollution limits.”
The company has been fined a total of $5,000 over the last five years, according to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency database. In the April notice of their intent to sue, the environmental groups said that public reports the company submits to state and federal regulators show the plant has repeatedly exceeded its discharge limits in recent years.
The groups also suggested that high nitrate levels found in monitoring wells may be from water leaking into groundwater from two wastewater storage lagoons on the property. They further alleged that the company hasn’t properly documented the tons of poultry waste sludge that is hauled away from the plant.
In its press release, the MDE said its investigators have found multiple infractions from July 2018 to the present. MDE spokesman Jay Apperson said those include exceeding currently permitted limits on several pollutants, plus an unauthorized discharge of only partially treated waste.
Also, in response to odor complaints, an MDE inspector visited the plant in August and cited it for an air pollution violation after finding fault with the operations and monitoring of its emission scrubber.
The draft permit includes updated groundwater monitoring requirements that the MDE said could provide more information about potential sources of pollution. It also contains more requirements for proper sludge management and reporting on its disposal.
“We are working with the facility, citizens and advocacy groups to ensure environmental progress using our regulatory enforcement tools,” the MDE’s Grumbles said.
The MDE has scheduled a virtual public hearing for 5 p.m. Oct. 20, with an in-person hearing at a date and place to be determined. To register for the virtual hearing, go here. The department will accept written comments on the draft permit if submitted by Dec. 15. For more information, go here, here and here.
By Tim Wheeler and Jeremy Cox
Restoring the Chesapeake Bay’s depleted underwater meadows is a painstaking process, requiring lots of elbow grease, savvy and patience. Paradoxically, it begins by pulling up a little of what’s left of the critical aquatic habitat.
Standing knee-deep in the Wye River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Elle Bassett and a handful of helpers raked clumps of wispy green grass from the water one warm June day. They piled the vegetation, known as horned pondweed, in orange plastic baskets for transport by boat to shore.
“This one is easier than others to harvest,” noted Bassett, the Miles-Wye Riverkeeper. Some species of Bay grass are more firmly rooted in the bottom, she explained, and have to be collected one handful at a time.
For the last four years, Bassett and other staff and volunteers with the nonprofit group ShoreRivers have been working with experts from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and Anne Arundel Community College learning how to restore Bay grasses.
“We’re doing what I would call a ‘technology transfer’” said Mike Naylor, a DNR biologist specializing in the Bay grass restoration effort who was on hand to help.
Now, with a $75,000 grant from the Chesapeake Bay Trust, ShoreRivers has ramped up its efforts, with a focus on mid and upper Eastern Shore waters. Their aim: to double the state’s overall restoration capacity.
A lot is at stake. Bay grasses, also known as submerged aquatic vegetation, or SAV, are a vital component of the Chesapeake ecosystem. They provide food and shelter for waterfowl, turtles, fish, blue crabs and other creatures. They also consume some of the excess nutrients that foul the water, clearing it up and infusing it with fish– and shellfish-sustaining oxygen. For those reasons, the grass beds are closely monitored as an indicator of the Bay’s health.
Like the rest of the Bay, the grasses need all the help they can get. Historical photos show that they once covered at least 185,000 acres of the bottom of the Chesapeake and its tributaries, and probably much more. But by 1984, with the Bay suffocating from nutrient and sediment pollution, the coverage had dwindled to just 38,227 acres.
Bay grasses are so important to the estuary’s health that federal, state and local agencies and nonprofit groups have been trying for decades to restore them, with mixed results.
Rebound, then regression
A few years ago, it looked like the Bay’s grasses were rebounding quite well on their own. By 2018, aerial surveys spotted underwater vegetation growing across more than 100,000 acres of Bay and river bottom, well on their way to achieving the restoration effort’s goal of having 130,000 acres by 2025.
Water quality has proven to be a major factor, both in the past decline of the Bay’s aquatic plants and in the recovery seen so far. Like upland vegetation, underwater grasses need sunlight to grow. But sediment or nutrient-fed algae blooms cloud the water, which stunts or even kills the plants.
“It really only required a modest improvement in water quality for SAV to improve,” noted Brooke Landry, a DNR biologist and chair of the federal-state Chesapeake Bay Program’s SAV workgroup.
But 2018 and 2019 brought heavy and persistent rains, which clouded the water and altered its salinity — another critical factor for sustaining certain species of underwater vegetation. The Bay’s grasses shrank by 40% in 2019 and by another 7% in 2020, the surveys found.
Now, manual grass restoration efforts, which seemed almost superfluous just a few years ago, have taken on renewed importance.
“I think every little bit does help,” Landry said.
For a while, in the 1990s and early 2000s, comparatively more money and effort were put into replanting lost aquatic grasses. There were some notable successes, such as the restoration of eelgrass beds in the seaside bays of Virginia.
In Maryland, biologists at Anne Arundel Community College figured out how to raise Bay grasses from seeds collected from the wild. They set up an aquatic plant nursery there capable of producing batches of underwater vegetation.
Around 2000, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the DNR teamed up to get students in more than 300 Maryland schools to grow aquatic vegetation in their classrooms and then take it out to plant on the Bay bottom.
Those broad-scale efforts succeeded in replacing some missing grass beds in places such as the Severn and Magothy rivers in Anne Arundel County. But they were “expensive, time-consuming and laborious,” Naylor said. The results also proved to be spotty overall, and funding dried up.
Out of necessity, the effort shifted to a lower gear.
“Instead of doing huge projects, we’ve been concentrating on small-scale restoration efforts of an acre or less,” Landry said. They’ve also chosen to skip the logistical challenges of raising aquatic plants in nurseries or classrooms and instead sow the seeds directly on the bottom.
The aim, she said, is to plant about 20 acres a year, roughly evenly divided between Maryland and Virginia.
“We started working with waterfront homeowners,” she explained, “planting little, tiny half-acre projects, just placing seeds offshore.” Those have worked, she said, in places like the upper Chester River.
“The hard part is collecting and processing seeds,” Landry added. Care must be taken to find grass beds lush enough they can afford to give up some seeds and still sustain themselves. Collectors limit their harvests to no more than a third of those beds.
Focus on the Shore
The aerial SAV surveys conducted by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science help to identify candidate sites for seed collection, but ground-truthing is still vital.
The patch of horned pondweed harvested in June had never been spotted from the air, noted Bassett, the Miles-Wye Riverkeeper. It was instead discovered by a ShoreRivers volunteer who routinely scouts local waters to check on grass beds.
ShoreRivers is focusing its efforts on restoring grasses in the four Bay tributaries in the mid and upper Shore. Of the rivers in those regions, only the Sassafras has a healthy stock of underwater vegetation, which has at times met and even exceeded the acreage goals set by the federal-state Bay Program. It’s lost ground lately, though, like much of the rest of the Bay.
Grass coverage in the other rivers — the Chester, Miles-Wye and Choptank — is well below acreage targets considered sufficient for ecosystem health.
Complicating restoration efforts: Each river has a different type or mix of underwater vegetation — horned pondweed, widgeon grass, redhead and wild celery — each with its own characteristics and optimal growing conditions.
“SAV is almost as elusive as crabs in determining their patterns,” said Annie Richards, the Chester Riverkeeper.
The grasses harvested by ShoreRivers staff and volunteers are being taken to Chestertown, where the group has forged a partnership with Washington College to process and store the seeds for replanting the next spring. They’ve built a “turbulator,” a sort of Rube Goldberg contraption on the grounds of the college’s new Semans-Griswold Environmental Hall. It is based on a prototype built by Anne Arundel Community College.
In the turbulator’s big, water-filled fiberglass tank, ShoreRivers staff and volunteers dump in batches of Bay grass to give them hot tub-like baths. Shopvacs churn the water, beginning the process of separating the tiny grass seeds from their stalks. The seeds and some plant matter sink to the bottom, where they’re drawn out by draining the tank.
Staff and volunteers must meticulously cull the seeds from plant debris by hand. They first sift them through a series of wooden trays lined with successively finer screens, much as miners pan for gold. Finally, they pore over them, trying to spy and winnow out seeds that don’t look like they’re ripe enough to germinate successfully later.
“Every seed counts,” said Amy Narimatsu, the group’s volunteer coordinator.
Once that laborious process is complete, the seeds are stored in jars and refrigerated to keep them viable until the next spring, when they’ll be taken out for planting. To prevent them from being carried away by the current and ending up in the wrong place, the seeds are embedded in clumps of playground sand, which pull them to the bottom and give them a fighting chance to sprout and take root in the intended spot.
The harvesting, processing and storage all follow a tried-and-true script worked out by experts at Anne Arundel Community College. But one important challenge remains: getting the grasses to grow again where they vanished years ago.
“You can collect all the seed you want, and we are really good at keeping it and storing it properly,” said Mike Norman, lab manager at Anne Arundel Community College’s environmental center. “But we really have to work on getting it out in the field in successful projects.”
Learning where to plant
With decades of VIMS surveys as a guide, Norman said they to try to target areas for seeding where they know grasses grew in the past.
There have been some successful plantings of redhead and widgeon grass, Norman said, but the Johnny Appleseed method of restoration is still a learning process, with misses as well as hits.
“We’ve been collecting seeds for a long time,” he said. “We have been broadcasting seeds for a much shorter time — the past three years.”
Bassett said Bay grass restoration offers ShoreRivers a way to engage more volunteers in hands-on work that directly benefits the Bay. She said she’s looking forward to enlisting Washington College students in the ranks.
“For us, as riverkeeper organizations, our main mission is protecting and restoring our waterways,” she said. “So we feel very much that SAV restoration is key to improving water quality.”
The DNR’s Naylor said he hopes the ShoreRivers undertaking can be replicated by other riverkeeper and watershed groups around the Bay. But it’ll take more funding, he noted.
While the acreage they’re able to restore may be small compared to what’s needed, Naylor said it also helps to engage and educate the public about the value of aquatic plants, which were once routinely eradicated because boaters complained about the grasses fouling their propellors.
“We can get people involved, to care about it,” he said, “so they appreciate SAV and don’t look at it as a pain in the butt.”
By Timothy B. Wheeler
Baltimore has long been plagued by sewage leaks and overflows fouling its waters. Now, the city has a new pollution woe: poorly maintained municipal sewage treatment plants that for more than a year have been daily dumping millions of gallons of bacteria– and nutrient-laden wastewater into rivers that flow into the Chesapeake Bay.
Following a watchdog group’s discovery of high bacteria levels in wastewater coming from one of the city’s two sewage treatment plants, an inspector for the Maryland Department of the Environment has found “numerous deficiencies and violations” at both facilities.
In visits to the city’s Patapsco Wastewater Treatment Plant in May and to the Back River plant in June, the MDE inspector found operational and maintenance problems, with key treatment equipment malfunctioning or out of order, staffing shortages and botched sampling for toxic contaminants in the wastewater.
The laundry list of problems uncovered at Maryland’s two largest wastewater plants threatens Bay restoration efforts, environmentalists warn. It also raises questions, they say, about the diligence of state regulators in ensuring compliance with pollution limits.
City public works officials are scheduled to meet Friday with state regulators following an Aug. 23 letter from the MDE demanding immediate corrective actions and warning the city that it faces fines of up to $10,000 per day and possible legal action by the state attorney general.
“We’re going to hold [the Department of Public Works] accountable,” MDE Secretary Ben Grumbles said in an interview. “They have a lot of explaining to do.”
In response to press queries, a spokesman released a short statement from Public Works Director Jason Mitchell. He said that his staff “has developed a strategy to get back into compliance and will be providing a timeline for compliance to MDE.”
Alice Volpitta, the Harbor Waterkeeper, said she and her colleagues at the nonprofit watershed group Blue Water Baltimore were “pretty shocked” by the scope and severity of problems uncovered at the city’s wastewater plants after the group reported detecting high fecal bacteria levels in the Patapsco plant’s discharge in April and early May.
In prior years, Volpitta said, Blue Water Baltimore’s monitoring program had picked up occasional bacteria spikes at the Patapsco plant, usually when it was overwhelmed by inflows from heavy rains. But this past spring, she and her team detected “consistent ongoing high bacteria readings” unrelated to rainfall at the plant’s outfall just upriver of the Key Bridge.
The city has spent $1.6 billion since 2002 to comply with a state-federal consent decree requiring an overhaul of its sewer network to halt frequent overflows and leaks of untreated sewage. At the end of 2020, city officials announced the near completion of a $430 million “headworks” project at the Back River plant, which officials predict will eliminate 83% of the overflows. The city is also spending millions annually to curb polluted stormwater runoff from streets, parking lots and buildings.
But because those two plants treat a high volume of wastewater, their discharges of inadequately treated sewage threaten to offset those efforts, environmentalists contend. Back River discharges about 72 million gallons of wastewater daily, while Patapsco releases about 55 million gallons.
According to Blue Water Baltimore, the combined daily discharge of the two plants would fill a 2.5-foot deep wading pool the size of the city’s 155-acre Patterson Park. By sheer volume alone, not the amounts of pollutants, the plants’ daily combined discharge is on par with the cumulative amount of rain-diluted sewage that overflows each year across the city.
“If we can’t trust our wastewater treatment plants to actually treat the sewage,” Volpitta said, “it doesn’t really matter much what other … best practices we’re putting on land.”
The MDE inspection reports detail numerous violations at each plant, many of them similar.
At the Patapsco plant, the MDE inspector found it had repeatedly violated limits since July 2020 on levels of harmful bacteria, phosphorus, nitrogen and total suspended solids. Overall, the plant exceeded its total authorized nitrogen discharge for 2020 by nearly 140,000 pounds and surpassed its total phosphorus load by 47,800 pounds. Fewer than half the units used to screen incoming sewage were operational, and those were so clogged with trash and debris they couldn’t work properly, the inspector found.
Plant managers blamed the exceedances on equipment failures and on a worker shortage because of the coronavirus pandemic, the MDE report said.
But the MDE inspection found that the Patapsco plant also has failed to comply with a 2016 consent order requiring it to reduce discharges of fats, oils and grease into the river. The city had yet to upgrade or replace equipment needed to remove the pollutants, despite a 2018 deadline, and only 5 of 18 settling tanks to be used for the removal were working at the time of the visit. Some were so full of scum the inspector warned they would also fail soon without prompt maintenance.
At the Back River plant, the MDE inspector said the discharge exceeded permit limits on pollution every month but one from August 2020 through May 2021, with excessive levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, total suspended solids and ammonia, and a couple of instances of elevated bacteria. Plant managers said there had been a malfunction of a key piece of equipment, a centrifuge used to separate solids from liquids. But the inspector noted that the exceedances began months before that breakdown and that managers had failed to report excessive discharges promptly to the MDE, as required.
During his June walk-through, the MDE inspector also found “malfunctioning equipment because of maintenance problems” and that only two of 76 plant operators had permanent licenses, an indication of their level of training and expertise to run and maintain the facility properly. Plant managers told the inspector that some staff had failed to pass the licensing test and others had declined to take it because there was no incentive to do so.
The inspection further found defective sampling at Back River for toxic contaminants, particularly for polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs, which rendered the results useless in gauging how much is being removed or discharged into the river. Fish consumption advisories throughout the Baltimore area advise recreational anglers to limit their meals of locally caught fish because of the buildup of PCBs in them.
MDE Secretary Grumbles said it is a “high priority” for state regulators to quickly rectify the situation.
“We know how important of a partner the city is in reducing pollution and helping the state meet its [Baywide nutrient reduction] requirements,” Grumbles said. “When there are problems at a treatment plant [involving] operation and management of the facility, that’s a heightened concern for us.”
Volpitta praised the MDE for taking action but said she was perturbed that the agency didn’t catch the problems sooner. She noted that in the year before Blue Water Baltimore’s sampling, the city had been filing required monthly discharge monitoring reports with the MDE and EPA, which made it clear that some pollutants were exceeding permitted levels.
“That’s the big question,” she said. “Why did it take so long for anything to come of that self-reporting?”
Grumbles said that MDE staff started looking at the plants’ monthly reports and getting information from the city in March. At that time, he said, they saw a “trend that was totally unacceptable” and began preparing for inspections.
The first inspection took place the day after Blue Water Baltimore gave the MDE its water quality findings. At the time, Volpitta said, MDE officials didn’t give any indication they were already aware of problems at the Patapsco plant.
“I think there’s a lot of questions to be answered here,” she said. “We’re very concerned about the lack of oversight that appears to have occurred.”
For the safety of its staff during the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020, the MDE cut back on physical inspections of facilities discharging into state waters. But even before that, it had begun conducting a growing number of compliance checkups without leaving the office, by reviewing plants’ self-reported data.
Before this year, the MDE had physically inspected the Patapsco plant twice in 2016 and once each in 2017, 2018 and in June 2020, according to a spokeswoman. The Back River plant was inspected once in 2016, five times in 2017, twice in 2018 and once in 2019, she said. Three of the 2017 inspections were in response to complaints, the spokeswoman noted, without providing additional information.
Mitchell, the city’s public works director, said in his statement without elaborating that “the root causes for the violations have been identified by DPW and will be addressed systematically to ensure we achieve 100% compliance.”
Grumbles said, “it’s a priority for us to get this resolved as quickly as possible.”
But Volpitta said that, given the findings of the MDE inspections, she doubts there’s a quick fix to all the problems.
Josh Kurtz, Maryland director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, called for swift enforcement action against the city, but also questioned the state’s oversight of such facilities.
“Marylanders depend on government agencies to be transparent and accountable when problems arise,” Kurtz said in a statement Tuesday. “In this case, it appears Baltimore’s Department of Public Works failed for years to address known problems at the city’s two wastewater plants, which led to months of partially treated wastewater flowing into the Baltimore Harbor and Chesapeake Bay during the previous year.”
And even if the MDE was investigating the plants before Blue Water Baltimore reported its findings, Kurtz found fault with the low-key way it was handled until this week.
“Neither DPW nor Maryland Department of the Environment, the agency tasked with enforcing state pollution regulations, publicly addressed these ongoing issues at the plants until the nonprofit Blue Water Baltimore issued their findings in a news release [on Monday],” he said.
The MDE has relied heavily on upgrading wastewater treatment plants to meet its nutrient reduction obligations under the Bay’s “pollution diet,” formally known as the total maximum daily load, which the EPA imposed in 2010.
“With such a heavy reliance on these upgrades,” Kurtz said, “the state must prioritize oversight of these facilities to ensure proper operation and impose penalties for violations.” Failures at large plants like Patapsco and Back River can undermine the overall Bay restoration effort, he added.
Kurtz also said the city and state owe more diligence to the health of Baltimore area residents. “Both plants serve and discharge into rivers and streams where underserved and frontline community members live,” he said. “These communities have suffered from a legacy of disproportionate impacts of dangerously high levels of pollution, especially harmful bacteria.”
By Timothy B. Wheeler
Climate change is clearly observable in every region of the planet, and the window is closing for nations to take actions that would stem the most severe future impacts, a global climate assessment concluded in August.
The report, compiled by more than 230 scientists who assessed more than 14,000 studies, cautioned that world leaders are rapidly running out of time to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius from preindustrial levels.
Many of the changes now observed are unprecedented in thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of years of climate records, said the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which was created by the United Nations in 1988 and is considered an authority on global climate issues.
Even with quick action, the panel warned, that changes already set in motion — such as sea level rise — are irreversible over hundreds to thousands of years because it takes so long to counter alterations already taking place in the oceans that cover three-quarters of the planet.
Still, the report said that strong and sustained actions to curb emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases would limit impacts of climate change, but it could take 20–30 years to see global temperatures stabilize.
“This report is a reality check,” said Valérie Masson-Delmotte, co-chair of the IPCC Working Group that released the report. “We now have a much clearer picture of the past, present and future climate, which is essential for understanding where we are headed, what can be done and how we can prepare.”
The Chesapeake Bay has seen rising water levels and temperatures for decades, and the report says continued rises in sea levels and temperatures are virtually certain for most of North America, including the East Coast.
This means, in all likelihood, that the Bay in coming decades will be unlike the Bay of the past. It will be both higher and warmer than it has been since it was created after the last ice age 10,000 years ago.
Water levels around the Bay have already risen by about a foot during the last century. That’s one of the fastest paces in the nation because the Bay is experiencing the dual effects of rising water and subsiding land.
NASA, using modeling data produced for the report, launched a website predicting future sea level change in different places around the globe. It shows that sea levels near Norfolk could rise between 2 and 5 feet by the end of the century and between a foot and a foot-and-a-half by 2050.
Temperature rises will cause their own problems. Bay water temperatures have risen about 1 degree Celsius in the last 25 years. That has contributed to the loss of eelgrass in the Lower Bay — a critically important underwater habitat that scientists expect to largely disappear from the Bay in coming decades. Scientists also say the rising water temperatures have increased the prevalence of harmful algae blooms.
The Bay’s watershed has about 10% more precipitation on average than it did a century ago, and a 2017 federal climate report said more of that rain was coming during intense storms. The IPCC expects those trends to continue and will lead to an increased frequency of river flooding.
It also expects hurricanes along the East Coast to become more severe. The Chesapeake Executive Council, which includes the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, governors of watershed states, the mayor of the District of Columbia and the chair of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which represents state legislatures, is expected to adopt a directive later this year affirming that climate change is affecting the Bay and its watershed and that urgent action is warranted.
By Karl Blankenship
The Senate Appropriations Committee has signed off on $37.5 million in spending that could launch the reconstruction of James and Barren islands in the Chesapeake Bay.
The Aug. 4 approval sets up a vote before the full Senate. The legislation will then undergo negotiations between the House and Senate to merge their differing versions of the measure, which is part of the $53 billion Energy and Water Development Appropriations bill.
The current House bill does not include the James and Barren funding.
The $1.9 billion undertaking, called the Mid-Chesapeake Bay Island Ecosystem Restoration, will rebuild two eroding islands off the coast of Dorchester County, MD. In all, it will create more than 2,100 acres of new land.
The fill will be dredged from the shipping channels for the Port of Baltimore, keeping the lanes open for cargo traffic.
The funding would cover the first year of planned construction. Critically, the move transfers the effort off the “new start” phase, where projects can languish for years, said Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland.
“The project will build the resiliency of Dorchester County communities, provide new habitats for a variety of fish and wildlife, support commerce at the port and enhance safety for boats and ships navigating the Bay,” Cardin said. “Having worked for years to make this vision a reality, I am heartened to announce that we are finally taking decisive steps toward giving the Mid-Bay Island Project what it needs to move forward in earnest.”
By Jeremy Cox
The struggling Chesapeake Bay restoration effort stands to get a hefty infusion of funding from the ambitious $1.2 trillion infrastructure deal reached over the weekend in the U.S. Senate.
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act calls for providing $238 million over the next five years to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Chesapeake Bay Program, which coordinates the state-federal restoration effort.
The Bay restoration effort is among $21 billion in environmental remediation projects that would be funded under the bill. The 2,702-page measure also includes money for physical infrastructure, such as highways, bridges, transit and rail, airports and ports, power and water systems, waterways, broadband access and electric vehicle charging stations.
Hammered out by a bipartisan group of senators, the infrastructure bill is much smaller than the $2.6 trillion plan that Biden proposed in March. Many Republicans had criticized that plan because it included funding for things not traditionally deemed as infrastructure, such as workforce training and care for the elderly and disabled.
Those are now to be included in a separate $3.5 trillion spending bill that Democrats are working on, which faces an uncertain future in the closely divided Congress.
The bipartisan infrastructure bill, which is expected to pass the Senate with the backing of Republican leaders, also slashed funding for clean energy tax credits intended to help fight climate change.
But the bill increases spending overall on environmental remediation above what Biden had proposed. It would provide funds for cleaning up abandoned mine land and Superfund sites, as well as for improving the resiliency of degraded ecosystems, such as the Great Lakes, Puget Sound and Gulf of Mexico.
The Chesapeake restoration effort also could get additional help from the bill’s proposal to boost funding nationally for water and wastewater infrastructure. Two EPA programs that provide loans to states for upgrading sewage and stormwater treatment facilities and for enhancing drinking water systems each would get an additional $14.7 billion over the next five years. That would more than double the current annual level of funding for such projects.
The Chesapeake Bay Program received $87.5 million for fiscal year 2021, and President Biden has proposed increasing that by $3 million for fiscal year 2022, which starts Oct. 1. The House has already approved that level of funding. The infrastructure measure, if passed, would boost that by roughly 50%, providing an additional $47.6 million a year.
“As we work to modernize our infrastructure and tackle climate change, it’s crucial that we’re investing in protecting our watersheds,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “That’s why we fought to include funding for the Chesapeake Bay Program in the bipartisan infrastructure deal.”
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) cited the Bay Program funding as one of the reasons he supported the infrastructure bill. “Marylanders will be pleased to see this includes funds for ecosystem restoration,” he said in a statement.
The bill’s text doesn’t say how the EPA is to use the additional money. The Bay Program typically funds research and helps assess cleanup progress, but nearly two-thirds of its money also goes to states, local governments and nonprofit groups for on-the-ground projects.
Even without such details spelled out in the bill, Bay advocates hailed the proposed funding increase. Kristin Reilly, director of the Choose Clean Water Coalition, called it “a shot in the arm” for the states and federal government, which could help them get closer to putting all needed pollution reduction practices in place by their 2025 deadline.
“While currently there is ambiguity on the exact allocation of this funding, we are heartened to see the restoration of our waterways is recognized as a national priority,” Reilly said in a statement. “This investment will not only help provide all the benefits clean water brings, but the many on-the-ground restoration projects this funding supports will also deliver good jobs and stimulate local economies.”
With just four years to go to meet the deadline of the “pollution diet” that the EPA set for the Bay in 2010, advocates and state and local officials have been urging Congress to boost funding for the restoration effort, which remains far short of many of its goals.
At least one-third of the outcomes pledged in the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement are lagging badly or in limbo. An internal Bay Program review found that seven, including the key goal of meeting nutrient and sediment pollution reduction targets, are unlikely to be met by the 2025 deadline.
In May, governors of the six Bay watershed states, the mayor of the District of Columbia and the chair of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a tri-state legislative advisory body, wrote Congress seeking an additional billion dollars for the effort. They didn’t specify how the extra money could be spent.
The Choose Clean Water Coalition, representing dozens of environmental and community groups across the six-state watershed, also wrote congressional leaders that month asking in part for a $132 million boost in Bay Program funding. It proposed distributing the increased funding in grants to states and local governments to support their restoration efforts.
By Timothy B. Wheeler