The explosion and fire that struck the Back River Waste Water Treatment Plant today will have long-term ramifications for the problem-plagued, Baltimore-owned facility.
The plant is responsible for processing fully 70% of Back River’s sludge, meaning the city will now have to scramble to find a way to dispose of mountains of human waste “biosolids.”
At 11:30 this morning, an explosion ripped through the silo-shaped Pelletech Facility, punching a hole through one side of the structure.
Seven employees inside the building escaped without injury, but the structure itself was badly damaged by the blast reportedly caused by gas-fed thermal oil.
Baltimore County firefighters put out a two-alarm fire that spread into other parts of the building, all located within the sprawling treatment compound located in the 8200 block of Eastern Avenue in Dundalk.
The damaged facility lies at the heart of the operational problems that led to massive discharges of pollutants into the Chesapeake Bay in 2021 and a partial takeover by Maryland Environmental Services (MES) last March.
After initially resisting MES management, city officials acceded to the state’s demands and expressed confidence that Back River’s problems were in the rear-view mirror.
Saying the plant was now in compliance with the Clean Water Act and other standards, Yosef Kebede, head of the city’s wastewater bureau, told the Board of Estimates in January, “We’re in a good place.”
He said MES would monitor the city’s progress through April and then withdraw.
That timetable will likely change after today’s setback.
History of Problems
Opened nearly 30 years ago, the damaged plant is responsible for drying and converting 20,000 tons of suspended solids (aka, sludge) captured yearly in sewage settling tanks.
The sludge is dried at high temperatures and converted into pellets sold as slow-release fertilizer, trademarked Granulite, by the facility’s private operator, Synagro.
The other 30% of the plant’s biosolids output is trucked to a private composting site on Quarantine Road near Curtis Bay.
Problems at the pelletizing plant stretch back several years.
In May 2021, sludge had become so embedded in the facility that it was befouling its fire safety apparatus.
Last March, the Synagro system stopped altogether, leading to cascading failures that resulted in nine of the plant’s 11 settling tanks going out of service, their blades and basins clogged with sludge and growing vegetation.
As a result, tens of millions of tons of sewage bypassed the settling tanks and other cleaning and aerating facilities and were dumped into Back River with phosphorus, nitrogen and other pollutants far in excess of state and federal standards.
Today, Blue Water Baltimore, an environmental group that first raised alarms about conditions at Back River, noted that solids handling and processing had been previously detected as safety hazards by the Maryland Department of the Environment.
In May 2022, MDE reported that pellet processing at Patapsco, Baltimore’s other sewage treatment plant in Fairfield, was on hold because of concerns over potential fire and explosion hazards.
Synagro began producing sludge cakes rather than pellets, a much slower process, at Patapsco to get around the issue.
Shortly thereafter, Maryland Environmental Service pointed to Synagro’s worry that it couldn’t safely process the sludge at Back River within the guidelines of its fire suppression system.
Today’s explosion made it clear that the way sludge is handled “poses a threat not only to the environment and to nearby residents, but to the workers at the plants as well,” Blue Water Baltimore said.
The organization and the Chesapeake Legal Alliance have been in lengthy negotiations with the state and the Baltimore Department of Public Works to develop a consent decree to resolve ongoing violations at the Back River and Patapsco plants.
“As we await word from authorities as to the exact cause of today’s explosion, this unfortunate event underscores the importance of developing and implementing a comprehensive plan quickly to ensure that adequate operation, maintenance and safety requirements are followed,” they said.