By Adam Andrzejewski
The head of Baltimore’s Bureau of Water and Wastewater, who was given $1 billion to fix the city’s disaster-plagued wastewater treatment plant and was paid a salary of more than $167,000 a year, is leaving the plant in shambles.
Yosef Kebede is responsible for the water and sewage needs of 1.8 million residents of Baltimore City and surrounding counties and for the troubled Back River Waste Water Treatment Plant.
A March 15 explosion at the plant damaged the facility, hindering its ability to dispose of “mountains of human waste” Baltimore Brew reported.
This follows a history of “massive pollution” outflows from the plant, an outbreak of E. coli contamination in West Baltimore and heavy staff turnover during Kebede's tenure.
In March 2022, the Maryland Department of the Environment placed the facility under the temporary control of Maryland Environmental Service, an unprecedented step to avoid the risk of “catastrophic failure” at the plant, Environmental Service Secretary Ben Grumbles announced.
The plant had been illegally releasing high concentrations of nitrogen, phosphorus and PCB-tainted sludge into Back River, a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay.
Unqualified staff and the sustained lack of maintenance despite $1 billion spent in capital improvements led to a “precipitous decline” Grumbles said.
The temporary control order was issued after the city failed to comply with a previous order from Grumbles to immediately stop illegally discharging water pollution at the plant and demonstrate that it has come into compliance with all Clean Water Act permit conditions.
Three months later, Maryland Department of the Environment and Baltimore City leadership agreed on a plan to improve the treatment plant.
At the same time an Environmental Service report found that problems started at the top, there was a lack of urgency by Kebede and Public Works Director Jason W. Mitchell, who announced in January he is leaving — however, he has remained at the agency, collecting a salary of $245,000, according to city payroll records.
“The gravity of the issue does not seem to resonate with DPW staff, as their response seems to have been a ‘business as usual’ approach,” the report said.
While this was going on, Kebede was making a salary of more than $167,000, according to city payroll records.
The DPW sent the following statement: “As you may already know, Yosef Kebede has resigned from his position with the Baltimore City Department of Public Works (DPW) as the Bureau Head of Water and Wastewater. While we are sad to see him leave, we are excited to see him flourish. The Director and DPW are proud of Mr. Kebede’s accomplishments in moving Back River into compliance for the last 10 months. In his role, he was responsible for a Bureau that included not just Back River, but dozens more treatment plants, facilities, operations and approximately 1,200 dedicated public servants. He drafted a strategic plan for sustained performance of the City’s plants that includes a Reliability Centered Maintenance (RCM) approach to ensuring longevity of critical assets. Mr. Kebede was also responsible for the planning and launch of an exciting workforce development initiative, B’More WISE, that will have legacy impacts to our hiring and training needs. Most importantly, during his tenure, Mr. Kebede recruited and hired talented experts and leaders and put in place an effective succession plan that positions the Bureau to sustain accomplishments for decades to come. Our team is preparing for his transition by cross-training on different responsibilities and developing contingency plans for potential scenarios; that plan will be released shortly.”
A DPW spokesperson continued: “One of the main priorities for the department right now is to continue the excellent improvements at both wastewater plants (Patapsco and Back River). We have developed a plan and improved our preventative, proactive, and predictive maintenance program, instituted a new Safety and Compliance Division, and improved our employee training program to continue the excellent progress at both treatment plants. We have implemented a multi-phased approach to improve the already 10-months of compliance of our effluent at Back River and Patapsco. “
Asked who will replace Kebede, the DPW spokesperson said Deputy Bureau Head Paul Sayan will serve in an acting capacity.
As for the $1 billion in capital improvements, the DPW spokesperson said, “The $1 billion investment in capital improvements was for DPW’s sewer system. The funds allocated helped to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant and have made substantial progress toward full compliance at the plant.
“The challenges faced at the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant are those that predated both Mayor Brandon Scott and DPW Director Jason Mitchell. However, we understand operating a wastewater treatment plant requires significant ongoing monitoring of all assets, and it is the priority of Director Mitchell and the administration to ensure that all DPW’s facilities are operating and maintained in a manner that is safe, efficient, and compliant with regulatory standards. We will continue improving in these areas.”
Asked how the city will prevent massive pollution outflows of the treatment plant, the DPW spokesperson said, “All monthly parameters are currently under permit limits, and Back River has maintained compliance since June 2022. DPW will continue to implement a comprehensive approach that includes reviewing and improving the plant’s infrastructure and operations, monitoring its performances, upgrading its technology and management systems, and improving our preventative, proactive, and predictive maintenance program.”