BALTIMORE (WJZ) — The state health and environment departments are advising residents to avoid contact with water in the Back River, saying elevated levels of contaminants could lead to illness.

“The health advisory is a necessary and protective step in our broader effort to stabilize the situation and dramatically improve the operation and maintenance of Baltimore’s world-class wastewater asset,” said Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles.

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Both Herring Run and Moores Run in Baltimore City feed into the Back River, which stretches from the city-county line to Essex in Southeast Baltimore County before emptying out into the Chesapeake Bay.

After learning of independent samples showing elevated bacteria levels upstream and downstream of the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant, the Maryland Department of Environment started taking weekly samples on Tuesday. At three of the four locations where water was collected, the bacteria levels were “above the state water contact standard,” state officials said Friday.

Marylanders are advised not to swim or wade into the Back River or drink water from it. Anyone who accidentally comes into contact with the water should wash with soap and water as soon as possible, state officials said.

Blue Water Baltimore, an advocacy group has alleged both the Patapsco and Back River Wastewater Treatment Plants have been discharging untreated sewage into nearby waterways, said the public health advisory is a necessary step.

“This is why water quality monitoring is so important – thanks to the data, we know the Back River is often unsafe for human contact; we are relieved that the state issued an advisory to protect the many people who recreate in the Back River. We will continue our efforts to ensure the sources of this pollution are eliminated as quickly as possible,” said Alice Volpitta, the group’s Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper.

The Baltimore County Department of Health will post signs at Cox’s Point Park in Essex to alert people of the public health advisory. The Maryland Department of the Environment said the warning is in effect until further notice.

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The Maryland Department of the Environment has issued fish consumption advisories for Channel Catfish, Common Carp and American Eel, telling residents to avoid eating them. They should also avoid eating the “mustard” in blue crabs caught in the river.

In March, Grumbles directed the Maryland Environmental Service to take over operations of the facility in response to pollution and other compliance issues at the plant, the largest of its kind in the state.

During an inspection of the facility, state officials found only two of the facility’s 11 primary settling tanks were in service, and only one of those was operating correctly, according to a March 27 directive from the Maryland Department of the Environment.

“Additional data from Discharge Monitoring Reports submitted by Baltimore City indicate monthly violations of total suspended solids, total nitrogen, and total phosphorus,” the directive said.

Last week, Blue Water Baltimore said it is proceeding with a federal lawsuit against the city after failing to reach a settlement agreement. The organization filed the suit last December, claiming the city has violated the federal Clean Water Act at both plants.

The Baltimore Department of Public Works has claimed the “continuous characterization of discharges from the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant as untreated wastewater is absolutely not factual.”

On April 15, the agency said a substance collected near the plant was not solid waste. The sample contained no living organisms, “indicating there were no undigested byproducts,” the city agency said.

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DPW said the sample appeared to be similar to one collected on March 23 by Blue Water Baltimore. Both gave off a strong odor, which DPW likened to marsh mud.

Brandon Weigel