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Bid to join sewage spill talks denied

Environmental PollutionWater PollutionEnvironmental PoliticsU.S. Environmental Protection AgencyPublic Officials

A federal judge has denied - for now, at least - Blue Water Baltimore's bid to intervene in the city's effort to delay its court-decreed deadline for fixing the pervasive sewage leaks that foul local streams and Baltimore's harbor.

In a brief five-sentence ruling filed earlier this month, U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz declared "untimely" the environmental group's motion to participate in talks between city officials and federal and state regulators over the 2002 consent decree requiring Baltimore to fix its largest sewage overflows.  The city  has estimated it would spend $1 billion upgrading the sewer system by the deadline, 2016.

Those talks to extend that timeline apparently began three years ago.  That's when, according to letters released earlier this year, the city wrote the Environmental Protection Agency and Maryland Department of the Environment asking for a 3 1/2-year delay in the deadline.  City public works officials said they needed more time to complete studies and coordinate with Baltimore County, where the Gwynns Falls and Jones Falls begin their journey to the harbor.

The talks only became public knowledge this summer, though. Blue Water Baltimore, which campaigns to restore the region's streams and harbor, filed a motion in August seeking a place at the table, arguing that the city is violating the terms of the consent decree and neither state or federal regulators were adequately enforcing it. 

The city reported discharging more than 7 million gallons of raw sewage into Baltimore’s streams and harbor from 2010 through 2012, the group said, while raising questions about how complete those reports were.  The group also argued there was evidence the city was not promptly posting streamside signs alerting the public to sewage overflows and cleaning up any spilled wasted debris, as required by the decree.

Lawyers for the city, EPA and MDE opposed the group's involvement, arguing among other things that its petition was premature since no changes had been proposed so far to the agreement approved by the court 11 years ago.

Motz adid not address the group's allegations about violations, writing instead that if and when any changes are formally submitted to the court, "Blue Water will be given an opportunity to express its views concerning the proposed modifications."

Halle Van der Gaag, Blue Water Baltimore's executive director, said the group was disappointed by the judge's decision, but hopeful it would be allowed to participate when changes to the agreement are submitted to the court.

"Regardless of the court’s decision, we hope that the City will increase activities needed to address these issues," she said in a prepared statement, including better spill notification, faster cleanup and stopping raw sewage from leaking into streams via storm drains.

"We also believe better reporting and accountability is essential for public confidence in their government," she added. "Independent labs and Baltimore City's own data show the streams and Harbor are highly contaminated with sewage, and increased corrective action from the City and oversight by regulators is still very much needed."

Jeff Raymond, a spokesman for the city's Department of Public Works, declined to comment on the judge's ruling.

It's not clear if there was any connection, but after Blue Water Baltimore went to court, city officials ended "WatershedStat," a series of monthly meetings they'd been holding since last year with interested outside parties, including Blue Water, to share information and discuss strategies for dealing with the sewage leaks and other water quality problems.

David Flores, Blue Water's Harbor Waterkeeper, said he thought the monthly meetings had provided "a really positive forum where the city seemed to be working on our input and in good faith making a targeted effort to investigate sewage and other water pollution issues.''  Flores and other group members routinely sample the city's streams and harbor for sewage and report any spills they learn of.

Asked why the city had canceled the meetings, DPW spokesman Raymond replied: "We tried WatershedStat as a communications tool, but decided it was not working as we had hoped."  He did not respond to a request to elaborate.

"We want to work with partners in the environmental community," Raymond added. "But WatershedStat isn't the vehicle we're going to use."

Though WatershedStat is no more, Flores said he hopes the city is continuing to pursue the problems he and others raised, but noted, "we’re somewhat in the dark."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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