Blue Water Baltimore seeking legal role in city's court-ordered $1.2B sewer system overhaul

A Baltimore water quality advocate wants to hold the city accountable to making $1.2 billion in sewer repairs.

A local water-quality advocacy group wants legal status to help enforce a federal court order that requires Baltimore to make $1.2 billion in repairs to its sewer system over the next 15 years.

Blue Water Baltimore filed a motion Wednesday in U.S. District Court that, if granted, would give the organization more power to hold city, state and federal officials accountable to an agreement reached last month to stop the chronic sewage leaks that foul the Patapsco River and other tributaries.

"We see this as a pretty important opportunity," said Halle Van der Gaag, Blue Water Baltimore's executive director. "It will very much be a game-changer if we're successful."

The organization has asked for a hearing before a judge who would review the motion. The process could take several months. Courts rejected a past effort by the group.

City and state officials pledged to work with Blue Water Baltimore, regardless of whether the motion is granted.

"Whether Blue Water Baltimore intervenes or not, we're listening to them and engaging with citizens who want more progress and less sewage," Maryland Secretary of the Environment Ben Grumbles said in a statement. "We do too, and are committed to working with our federal and local partners to succeed."

Jeffrey Raymond, spokesman for the city Department of Public Works, said the city will proceed with plans to satisfy the agreement regardless of motions to intervene from Blue Water Baltimore or other groups.

"That's their prerogative," he said.

A spokesman for the Environmental Protection Agency declined to comment until officials could review the group's filing.

Efforts to stop city sewage leaks go back more than a decade. State and federal environmental officials imposed a consent decree in 2002 that required the city to modernize its sewage system, which is more than a century old and was designed to discharge wastewater directly into the Jones Falls and other waterways when it becomes overloaded.

Under that agreement, the work should have been done by the end of last year. The city spent $867 million over 14 years on repairs.

But as the deadline came and passed, city officials negotiated a new pact, which was announced June 1.

The revised agreement requires the city to finish key repairs by 2021 and develop a plan for other work to be completed by the end of 2030. The cost over nearly 30 years is expected to be more than $2 billion.

Sewage routinely flows into city waterways from cracked and broken pipes. When it rains, stormwater flows into the system, inundating it and sometimes washing millions of gallons of water contaminated with untreated sewage into waterways.

Those overflows are a key reason why water quality is poor in the Inner Harbor, Jones and Gwynns falls and the Patapsco and Back rivers.

Blue Water Baltimore officials said that while the repairs laid out in the agreement would reduce sewage pollution significantly, they are concerned the document does not set forth any water-quality goals.

"This is a really process-oriented document," Van der Gaag said. "We're really interested in outcomes."

If a judge agrees to make the group a legal party to the consent decree, it could file motions alerting regulators to ongoing sewage pollution even after repairs are made, for example. It also could gain formal opportunities to review and respond to the city's cleanup and repair plans before they are submitted to agencies.

If the request is denied, Blue Water still could file public comments like anyone else, but the city and regulators would not be obligated to respond to them, Van der Gaag said. The EPA is accepting public comments on the city sewer plan through Aug. 8.

Blue Water Baltimore, which formed in 2010 as the result of the union of five local water-quality advocacy groups, filed a similar motion in 2013.

U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz rejected that motion, calling it "untimely" because it came 11 years after the initial consent agreement was reached. A federal appeals court affirmed that decision in 2014.

Blue Water Baltimore leaders said they hope to have a better chance now that the agreement has been revised.

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