The dumping of chlorinated water into the Jones Falls in 2018 – documented by state regulators following inquiries made by The Brew – has led to a rare assessment of fines against Baltimore City.
The Board of Estimates is set tomorrow to pay a $56,250 penalty to avoid a lawsuit filed by the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) for clean water permit violations.
The illegal discharges occurred as part of the Department of Public Works (DPW) tank project at Druid Lake reservoir, which now is nearing completion.
An initial spot-check by MDE found that as much as four times the legal limit of chlorinated water was being released into the Jones Falls.
While the levels did not pose a risk to humans, they could damage aquatic life and lead to fish kills.
Tomorrow’s settlement includes, in addition to $27,000 for the Druid Lake release, $24,750 for other self-reported illegal discharges under the permit and $4,500 for a 2017 discharge from a valve at the Lake Ashburton Water Filtration Plant.
According to the BOE, the city had initially sought to have the various claims separated, so DPW and the contractor, Texas-based Oscar Renda, could individually negotiate the penalty amounts with the state.
The city said it considers Oscar Renda fully responsible for the chlorinated water release at Druid Lake and partially responsible for the illegal self-reported releases elsewhere.
But MDE “refused to conduct settlement negotiations with any party other than the city,” which holds the water discharge permit, the documents said.
To avoid the cost of defending against a lawsuit by MDE, which would trigger a $10,000-a-day penalty, DPW is asking the city to pay the settlement – and promising to “seek liquidated damages” from Renda at a later time.
UPDATE – Oscar Renda’s local attorney, Robert Fulton Dashiell, said he had objected to the city’s handling of the matter and had been engaged in discussions with the city to determine responsibility.
“But those discussions ended when the attorney then representing the city left city government several months ago,” Dashiell said, in an email to The Brew.
“Despite our request, the city’s new counsel declined to continue those discussions,” Dashiell said. “Many of the alleged violations of the city’s MDE permit occurred before my client even commenced operations.”
Addressing the Board of Estimates today (1/19/22), deputy city solicitor Darnell E. Ingram said “these allegations stem from a contract dispute between the city and one of its vendors” and that the settlement was being recommended “in the best interests of the city.
The Board approved the settlement by a unanimous 5-0 vote.
The chlorinated water release was one of several problems that cropped up as part of DPW’s nearly $300 million project to install underground water tanks at the city’s reservoirs at Druid Hill Park and Ashburton in order to comply with federal regulations.
The original plan at Druid Hill Park was to bury two concrete water storage tanks west of the lake on park property. But critics objected to the location because it would shrink the park and disrupt the historic landscape. A location partially beneath the reservoir itself was then chosen for the tanks.
A “cofferdam” was built to hold back the water to allow construction to take place while the reservoir was still in use.
Persistent high turbidity levels discovered early in the process raised the possibility that viruses, parasites and bacteria could enter into the public drinking water suppl. This led to drinking water being diverted from the reservoir.
Residents in Ashburton, meanwhile, were up in arms about the clear-cutting of hundreds of trees at Hanlon Park, where two more underground water tanks were to be installed.
At a City Council hearing in 2018, DPW insisted that the problem of chlorinated water releases at Druid Lake were under control.
“It’s being sent into a storm drain after it has been de-chlorinated and meets all of the standards of MDE to discharge,” DPW’s Marcia Collins told the Judiciary and Legislative Investigations Committee.
But just a week later, MDE was ordering DPW to take the reservoir again offline because of the high levels of chlorine detected in the discharges.
Chlorinated Water Releases
In 2019, the environmental harm caused by heavily chlorinated drinking water became apparent when a broken city pipe flowed unchecked into a tributary of the Gwynns Falls.
George Farrant, of the Friends of Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park, said he tried for days to get DPW to shut the water off, but by the time the agency did so it was too late.
Dead fish could be seen everywhere, floating in the water and washed up on the stream bank.
MDE later found chlorine levels of 0.78 mg/L – eight times the legal limit. The agency said about 2,000 fish, including numerous American eel, were killed.