This fire raises more concerns about the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant. Photo: Baltimore County Fire Dept.

Explosion Under Investigation at Troubled Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant

A large fire and explosion at a Baltimore wastewater treatment plant sparks new concerns from watchdog and environmental groups who had already blown the whistle on ongoing violations at the plant.

The flames broke out at the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant (BRWWTP) just before noon on Wednesday. Baltimore County firefighters arrived to find multiple fires inside a large industrial building used by a Baltimore City contractor called Synagro. Synagro converts waste into pellets for agricultural use as fertilizer, according to the county fire department.

Seven people were working in the building when the fire occurred. Some left immediately on their own; firefighters helped the rest out and evacuated the building.

The building contained 12,000 gallons of thermal oil, which is used in Synagro’s manufacturing process. Most of it was contained in tanks. Firefighters allowed some of the oil to burn off before extinguishing the rest. Foam was used to put the last of the fire out.

Thermal oil is not considered hazardous and all the oil was contained to the building. The Maryland Department of the Environment found no environmental or public health impact from the fire and explosion.

The water treatment plant’s operations weren’t interrupted by the explosion. The plant is on a 466-acre site on the west shore of the Back River, which flows into the Bay. It is owned and operated by Baltimore City and serves an estimated 1.3 million residents in a 140-square-mile area of Baltimore City and County.

Built back in 1911, the BRWWTP has been plagued with pollution and maintenance violations. A year ago, state regulators took control of the plant from the city after a 48-hour ultimatum. Maryland Secretary of the Environment Ben Grumbles ordered plant operators stop discharging inadequately treated wastewater immediately and bring the facility into compliance, but they didn’t meet the deadline.

One week earlier, a Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) inspection found treatment equipment throughout the plant broken down or in poor condition, with only two out of 11 settling tanks functioning properly.

Waterway advocates Blue Water Baltimore and the Chesapeake Legal Alliance say the recent explosion points to another lack of proper oversight to keep the plant (and its 300 workers) safe.

In a statement, the two groups say the handling and processing of solid waste at Synagro has been noted as a potential safety hazard by MDE before. They point out that the state’s “comprehensive report in June 2022 noted that problems at the Back River WWTP caused a slowdown of solids handling due to Synagro’s concerns about its ability to process it safely within the guidelines of its fire suppression system.”

Blue Water Baltimore and Chesapeake Legal Alliance had been in negotiations with MDE and Baltimore City to develop a consent decree to resolve the violations. They are calling for third party oversight at the wastewater treatment plant “to ensure that adequate operation, maintenance, and safety requirements are followed.”

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation is asking the state to release all information “about the cause of the fire, how it will impact the plant’s overall operations, how public and worker safety will be protected, and how the plant will be fixed,” according to a statement from the environmental group.

Baltimore City Police and the Baltimore Fire Department are investigating the fire and explosion.

-Meg Walburn Viviano