With Less Funding than Originally Planned, Hogan Authorizes Start of Midge Spraying in Back River

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A midge swarm. Photo by Tom Koerner/USFWS.

Despite not getting its requested financial buy-in from Baltimore County, the state is moving ahead with a plan to try to eradicate the swarms of midges plaguing communities along the Back River.

Gov. Larry Hogan today signed an executive order directing Maryland’s department of agriculture and natural resources to begin spraying the pesticide Bti along the river. The state will use the $330,000 that Hogan authorized for the midge-spraying effort earlier this year – a fraction of the $1.3 million sum that the state had originally planned to split with Baltimore County on a more expansive spraying effort.

“We have heard the repeated call of local residents loud and clear,” Hogan said in a statement. “Our administration is proud to take action to provide immediate and much-needed relief from this ongoing nuisance and provide further upgrades to the wastewater treatment plant.”

For years, communities in Essex and other towns bordering the river have suffered from the presence of pesky midge swarms. Marinas and riverside restaurants have lost significant numbers of customers, and senior centers have had to limit outdoor activities, according to the text of Hogan’s executive order.

A 2014 Department of Natural Resources study identified nutrient pollution from the nearby Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant as the likely cause of the infestation. The plant processes human waste from Baltimore City and Baltimore County, but has experienced miles-long backups that are now being fixed in a multi-year project known as Headworks. Officials say the nearby waste backup has fostered conditions on the river that allow the two-winged flies to spawn and thrive.

The issue has created an unlikely political standoff between Hogan and Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz. This spring, Hogan prodded Kamenetz when he authorized the $330 million to be used in the spraying campaign, saying in a statement that “the county really has the responsibility to address this problem but has continually refused to do anything about it, and has ignored the pleas of Baltimore County citizens.”

Kamenetz’s administration has argued spraying Bti is a waste of taxpayer money and harms the environment. Vince Gardina, director of the Baltimore County Department of Environmental Protection and Sustainability, said in March that fixing the backup at the waste treatment plant and removing “pollutant-laden bottom sediment” at the bed of the river are the only ways to stop the two-winged fly hordes.

Hogan’s administration has defended its planned use of the pesticide, saying today that it “was recommended by a panel of scientists and will have no impact on the environment or other species.”

On a phone call, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Agriculture acknowledged the state had originally planned for the effort to cost $1.3 million – four times as much as it does now – and cover more ground if the county would have participated. Asked whether that change will affect how much territory the spraying effort can cover now, he said details remain unclear.

The Hogan administration says the spraying will target “hot spots” for fly swarms.

The governor signed the executive order on the same day when he appeared with Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh and other elected officials at a groundbreaking ceremony for the Headworks project. Officials say the project at the plant will help to eliminate 80 percent of the waste backups in the sewage system shared by the city and county.

Baltimore’s board of estimates has authorized $430 million in spending for construction costs and has made the project a core component of its modified consent decree with the federal Environmental Protection Agency and Maryland Department of the Environment. Under court order, crews must complete the Headworks project by Dec. 31, 2021.

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Ethan McLeod

Senior Editor at Baltimore Fishbowl
Ethan has been editing and reporting for Baltimore Fishbowl since fall of 2016. His previous stops include Fox 45, CQ Researcher and Connection Newspapers in Virginia. His freelance writing has been featured in CityLab, Slate, Baltimore City Paper, DCist and elsewhere.
Ethan McLeod
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