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Dirty pools

America’s aging wastewater treatment plants need an upgrade, but no one wants to foot the bill


Back River sewage treatment plant in Baltimore, Md. Cavan Images / Alamy

Dirty pools
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THE SUN WARMED Alice Volpitta’s cheeks as she turned her face toward the clear April sky. She and a co-worker at Blue Water Baltimore, an environmental nonprofit Volpitta calls a “water watchdog,” had spent the morning collecting samples. It was their first outing since winter.

They steered their boat, the Muckraker, to one of their most important testing sites, right above the pipe spewing effluent—a technical term for wastewater—from the Patapsco Wastewater Treatment Plant. The sprawling facility occupies 69 acres in a riverfront industrial area and is one of two plants operated by the city of Baltimore. Everything it discharges into the river is supposed to be thoroughly cleaned.

Volpitta picked up a scientific instrument that looked like a big chunk of PVC tube and lowered it into the water. She poured the sample she ­collected into a little bottle and put it on ice for the trip back to shore.

Blue Water Baltimore’s in-house lab tested the bacteria levels in the sample collected at the Patapsco site that morning in 2021. When the results came back 24 hours later, the bacteria levels were far too high. That surprised Volpitta but she was not overly alarmed. “One bacteria reading is not necessarily a huge red flag,” she said, noting it could be an anomaly.

Two weeks later, Volpitta repeated the test with a new sample. But when the results came back similarly high, she contacted the Maryland Department of the Environment. That triggered emergency inspections of Patapsco and the nearby Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant. The results of the inspections led to lawsuits and a public scandal.

Alice Volpitta collects a water sample from the Baltimore harbor.

Alice Volpitta collects a water sample from the Baltimore harbor. Kenneth Lam/The Baltimore Sun via AP

The problems at the Back River and Patapsco plants represented failures by state and local governments going back years. Due to consistent neglect, the plants had fallen into serious disrepair, creating pollution that could kill plants and wildlife and make people sick. The situations at Back River and Patapsco were particularly bad, but aging wastewater treatment infrastructure is a national problem. Most of America’s 16,000 publicly owned treatment plants are nearing the end of their life spans and will require significant investment in the next few decades to keep them operating well.

Treatment plants operate like a series of giant filters. The raw sewage runs through various screens to first remove bigger solids like tree branches, followed by sand and grit. Then the liquids and solids are separated. Solids go through several phases of treatment to neutralize pathogens and thoroughly dry them out. At Patapsco and Back River, the solids are eventually pelletized and transported off-site for agricultural use. The liquid starts as dirty pathogenic water, but plants clean it until it’s no longer dangerous. Then, they can ­discharge it into local waterways.

Patapsco and Back River are the two largest wastewater treatment plants in Maryland—by a sizable margin. The rivers into which they discharge their effluent are tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay, home to thousands of species of plants and animals. The bay’s health influences many areas of human life, including air and drinking water quality.

Patapsco came online in 1940, but Back River is even older. It opened in 1911. Glen Daigger is a professor of engineering practice at the University of Michigan. He says plants that age are common in America’s oldest cities, like Baltimore. But building new ones to replace them isn’t practical. Once a plant is built, it becomes almost impossible to relocate it. This is due to many factors, including regulations, the impact on the surrounding community, and the challenges of finding a suitable location. “The investment in the piping infrastructure to bring the wastewater to the plant is of similar magnitude as the plant itself,” Daigger said.

The rest of America’s treatment plants, while generally newer than Patapsco, are also aging. Most came online following the most significant event in the history of America’s water infrastructure—the passage of the Clean Water Act of 1972. It stemmed from the environmental movement in the 1960s and early ’70s, when Americans focused on cleaning up pollution.

Between 1973 and 1990, Congress gave states nearly $52 billion to build new wastewater treatment plants. It was the largest nonmilitary public works program since the Interstate Highway System, according to the Congressional Research Service. “Many places either didn’t have treatment or didn’t have effective treatment before that,” Daigger said.

In 1987, Congress amended the Clean Water Act and converted most of the grants into subsidized loans. After that, federal spending on wastewater treatment dropped significantly. But state spending didn’t rise to fill the gap.

The most recent report card for infrastructure issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers gives wastewater treatment across the country a D+. “In 2019, the total capital spending on water infrastructure at all levels was approximately $48 billion,” the report noted, “while capital investment needs were $129 billion, creating an $81 billion gap.”

Examples of water coming into the plant (left) versus leaving the plant at a water treatment facility in Colorado.

Examples of water coming into the plant (left) versus leaving the plant at a water treatment facility in Colorado. Vail Daily Chris Dillmann/AP

THE NATURAL LIFE SPAN of a wastewater treatment plant is about 50 years. Most constructed in the wake of the Clean Water Act entered service in the mid to late 1980s because, according to Daigger, new plants take at least a decade to design and build. That means major investments will soon come due.

State inspectors in Maryland found wide-ranging failures. At Patapsco fewer than half the units used to screen incoming sewage worked. And they operated at a reduced capacity because they were clogged with trash and debris. Conditions at Back River were even worse. Inspectors found widespread malfunctioning equipment due to lack of maintenance. Only two of 76 plant operators had permanent licenses. Employees had either failed the licensing exam or decided not to take it because they had no incentive. Both plants discharged far more ­pollution than legally permitted.

Represented by Chesapeake Legal Alliance, a firm that provides free legal services to individuals or nonprofits working to protect the Chesapeake Bay, Blue Water Baltimore filed suit against the city of Baltimore using an unusual provision of the Clean Water Act. “Typically you have to rely on a federal or state agency to enforce a law,” Volpitta said. “But under the Clean Water Act, it gives individual people who are harmed by pollution—or the actions of a person or a company—the ability to bring a legal action.” The Clean Air Act of 1970 has a similar provision.

Some have suggested the answer to contamination such as that threatening the Chesapeake Bay is a massive new federal grant program—another Clean Water Act. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act signed by President Joe Biden in 2021 includes $50 billion for drinking water and wastewater infrastructure. But that’s a drop in the bucket of what’s ultimately needed.

Utilities Inc. of Louisiana

Jonathan Williams, executive vice president of policy and chief economist at the American Legislative Exchange Council, doesn’t believe federal spending is the solution. “There’s no doubt that the water systems around America in many locations are crumbling,” he said. But federal money comes with many strings attached that cause delays and raise costs, Williams said. For example, the Biden administration has added climate change mitigation and diversity, equity, and inclusion requirements to projects. Williams says that takes money away from the actual infrastructure and channels it into “other extraneous goals.”

Federal funding also lets local governments dodge their responsibility to properly budget for important expenditures like infrastructure. Williams believes insufficient tax revenue is usually not the problem. Rather local governments prefer “spending it on priorities that are misallocated in many cases,” he said. Relying on federal funds makes the rest of America pay for those bad decisions instead of “solving the root problem, which is getting infrastructure policy right, and doing it at the state and local level where there’s more accountability.”

Attorney Evan Isaacson with the Chesapeake Legal Alliance represented Blue Water Baltimore in its lawsuit. He reviewed publicly available documentation and found that city engineers had identified projects that needed to be done at the plants for years, but they went unfunded.

“If those things were being diligently moved forward and funded and executed, I can’t see a scenario where the plants melted down like they did,” Isaacson said. “Why were they not being moved forward?”

Isaacson also noted that part of the blame lies with state environmental regulators for failing to regularly and thoroughly inspect Patapsco and Back River. That lack of oversight allowed the problems to get as bad as they did.

Federal funding also lets local governments dodge their responsibility to properly budget for important expenditures like infrastructure.

The problems at the two treatment plants attracted significant public attention. But even then, Baltimore was slow to act. Mayor Brandon Scott, who took office in 2020, insists the problems predated his administration.

In March 2023, a fire broke out at Back River in a facility run by a contractor. Desiree Greaver lives near the plant. She and several other local residents got a tour in the summer of 2023. She says a contractor showed the group around and gave them freer access than city employees would have. Greaver observed widespread disrepair, including tanks flagged in the state inspection that contained sewage festering there for years.

“It was disgusting,” Greaver said.

In November 2023, the city settled Blue Water Baltimore’s lawsuit, as well as one filed by the state, by entering a consent decree and paying a penalty of $4.75 million. The consent decree requires the city to take the steps needed to ensure the plants are functioning well. Baltimore won’t have to pay part of the penalty—$1.4 million—as long as it lives up to the terms of the consent decree. That gives it a financial incentive.

“I’m very optimistic about where we are right now,” Volpitta said. But she isn’t taking anything for granted. “Even if Baltimore City, for whatever reason, can’t comply with the terms of the consent decree, we have the ability to go back to the court and ask the judge to enforce it.”


Emma Freire

Emma Freire is a senior writer for WORLD Magazine. She is a former Robert Novak Journalism Fellow at the Fund for American Studies. She also previously worked at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and a Dutch multinational bank. She resides near Baltimore, Md., with her husband and three children.

@freire_emma

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