STORY 1: Raw Sewage
(Baltimore Harbor – Back River)

Why is raw sewage bad?

In many cities, and even smaller towns, raw sewage ends up in waterways, basements, and backyards because the treatment systems – wastewater treatment plants and pipes that carry the sewage to the treatment plant – are failing. This is often because they are very old and in disrepair, sometimes older than any living humans.  In Baltimore, the Back River Wastewater Treatment plant has been failing in these ways.

Who and what uses of the water is it harming

The individuals who live, work, and recreate along the lower Back River suffered harm from their exposure to dangerous bacteria from partially untreated sewage and other pollutants in the discharge coming from the Back Water Treatment Plant. Species that depend on the river are also likely to be negatively affected, which can impact recreational and commercial fishing.

If your community is experiencing any of these problems, you are not alone and you can find assistance to address these problems. 

A photo from a March 28, 2022, inspection by the Maryland Department of the Environment shows dead fish and what an inspector described as “heavy dark sediment” deposited along the Back River shoreline near an outfall for Baltimore’s Back River sewage treatment plant. (Maryland Department of the Environment

Are you living near or downstream
of a wastewater treatment plant? 

Here’s what to look for…

  • Visible changes to the water, especially in heavy rains because there may be leaking pipes or cross connections with the stormwater system. 
  • Sanitary waste coming out of pipes into river.
  • New odors near pipes or manhole covers.
  • Water bubbling up from manhole covers.
  • Neighborhoods dealing with sewage backups.

Ask questions of your local city or county environmental agency about the quality of the water downstream from the treatment plant. Find out whether the local or state government is regularly monitoring the water downstream from the wastewater treatment plant. It is important to review or compile data that tell the story. 

Community monitoring can be an incredibly helpful tool. For many pollutants, it isn’t that complicated, however, you need to be properly trained. For the local or state government, or a court of law, to take the results seriously, it is important to have a reputable lab analyze the samples as well. 

What Happened on the Back River

In 2021, the Back River in Baltimore was polluted with raw sewage, excessive nutrients, and other pollutants from domestic sewage. The Back River Wastewater Plant is the largest sewage treatment plant in Maryland (180 MGD), processing sewage from about 1.3 million residents. In 2021, it failed to treat the sewage coming to it from a 140-square mile area of Baltimore County and City.

Through routine monitoring, Blue Water Baltimore identified high levels of bacteria, floating fats, oil, and grease downstream of the Patapsco Wastewater Treatment Plant in the neighboring Patapsco River south of Back River. Both waters flow into Chesapeake Bay. When the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) inspected the plant they found egregious violations, which led them to also inspect the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant where they found similar violations.

Maryland Department of Environment inspection reports have captured violations that have been ongoing for more than a year, yet until March 2022, when the state took over the operation of the plant, nothing parallel to the severity of the violations had been done to address the problems. In March 2022, residents reported a fish kill and several black solids floating in the river. In April 2022, MDE issued a health advisory for the river.

What did local organizations do about it

Blue Water Baltimore documented that the Back River treatment plant had violated its permit at least 138 times for several pollutants including nitrogen, phosphorus, TSS, E. Coli, and BOD between January 2017-September 2021.

Blue Water Baltimore partnered with the Back River Restoration Committee community group to provide training and test kits for sampling the bacteria (in the form of Enterococcus) in the waters downstream from the Back River wastewater treatment plant. In May of 2022, 28 members of the Committee collected samples. From that one-day event, seven samples violated the state standard for bacteria (Enterococcus) which is 130 MPN/100 mL. In August, they sampled again. These sampling events alone cannot define water quality or result in regulatory action, but it can provide screening information for ongoing monitoring and highlight potential concerns, and engage the resident in the process of finding a solution to the problem.  

After identifying and reporting and urging action on the problems in the Back River, Blue Water Baltimore, together with their legal team of Chesapeake Legal Alliance and Barley Snyder, sued the Baltimore City Mayor and City Council in December 2021.

The state of Maryland followed with a lawsuit against Baltimore City in Baltimore City Circuit Court in January 2022 seeking civil penalties and an injunction. In March of 2022, the state took control of Back River plant after the fish kill was reported by residents and deteriorating conditions were documented by inspectors. In June 2022, Blue Water Baltimore sued the Baltimore City Mayor and City Council for injunctive relief at the Back River treatment plant as well as the neighboring Patapsco Wastewater Treatment Plant. The lawsuit required that ongoing health and safety issues be attended to immediately and that health advisory signs be posted at downstream water recreation areas. As of October 2022, the plant had met its permit conditions for June, July and August, but the conditions at the plant were not adequate for the state to relinquish control. Without the pressure from Blue Water Baltimore and its legal team, much of the progress forward would not have been made. To keep up to date on progress at the Back River Wastewater Plant, visit