Water quality advocates press for reforms as city negotiates new deadline to stop sewage leaks

Water quality advocates want more stringent oversight of Baltimore's sewer system leaks.

After Baltimore missed a court-imposed deadline to fix its leaky, antiquated sewer system by the end of 2015, environmental groups are pressing for more explicit water quality improvement goals and more aggressive policing of sewage spills they argue often go ignored.

City officials are negotiating with state and federal environmental agencies on a revised plan to keep dangerous levels of fecal bacteria out of waterways going forward. Despite the city spending $700 million over 13 years to stop sewage leaks, it remains well behind in efforts to satisfy an agreement struck in 2002 that laid out a plan to fix the problem.

Water quality advocates said that after years of slow progress, with some major projects yet to begin, they are hopeful the new agreement will require the city to do more. But they also left open the possibility of legal action if they think it's still too weak, or if it extends the deadline too far into the future.

"I'm optimistic many of our concerns will be addressed," said David Flores, the Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper, who works for the watchdog group Blue Water Baltimore. "Whether or not they'll be addressed sufficiently to our concerns, I can't say yet."

Environmental groups said they hope to see a more stringent court order within weeks. But parties to the discussions — the Baltimore Department of Public Works, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Maryland Department of the Environment — would not say when they expect to file a new plan in federal court or what the agreement, known as a consent decree, might include.

Missing the Jan. 1 deadline "in no way changed our goals or slowed the pace of our work," city public works spokesman Jeff Raymond said.

The city entered into the agreement with the federal and state governments Sept. 30, 2002, launching an effort to evaluate and repair the system of pipes that carries waste from homes and businesses to treatment plants. It required the city to stop discharging backed-up sewage into waterways, as it was designed to do decades ago, and to repair and replace cracked and corroded segments of the 1,400-mile network of pipes.

Since then, the city has tripled water and sewer charges to pay for $700 million of a planned $1.1 billion on repairs, and it closed 60 of 62 relief valves used to discharge sewage when the system is overloaded. But the remaining two valves continue to periodically release sewage into the Jones Falls, which flows into the Inner Harbor, to prevent it from backing up into basements.

A report last month by the Washington-based Environmental Integrity Project found that the city has released at least 335 million gallons of raw sewage from the valves over the past five years, often failing to report the contamination to the public.

In other cases, sewage makes its way into the harbor by leaking out of cracked or broken pipes and seeping into the separate system that carries otherwise clean rainfall runoff.

Environmental groups argue the ongoing leaks and discharges are proof that the original consent decree was too weak and poorly enforced.

An EPA spokesman said the agency, along with MDE, has levied $1.2 million in penalties that were required under the agreement. But groups like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation argue the new document needs to tie such fines to water quality improvement projects. Under the original agreement, broad financial penalties just make it harder for the city to afford the improvements, said Jon Mueller, the foundation's vice president for litigation

"That's something the next iteration of the consent decree has got to address," Mueller said. "We think it would be much more constructive if any dollar penalty be used toward some kind of project that would help citizens or further the goals of the overall purpose of the consent decree."

Flores said his group has pressed for the revised order to set milestones for water quality improvement. That would strengthen political incentives for city leaders to focus on reducing pollution instead of the sewer repair process itself, he said.

"I hope I don't have to eat my shoe, but I can't imagine all of these things being ignored by the regulators and the city," Flores said. "It would be, I think, a tremendous blunder and a missed opportunity if they were."

A more contentious element of the revisions could be the timeline it sets. Activists have pressed for a deadline no more than five years in the future, closely tracking a Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore initiative to make the Inner Harbor swimmable and fishable by 2020.

An EPA directive in 2010 meanwhile sets a deadline of 2025 for limiting what pollutants flow into rivers and streams across the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Environmental advocates said that suggests the new consent decree won't extend beyond a decade.

Federal and state regulators would not comment on the timeline or other details of their negotiations. EPA officials said discussions with the city and MDE are ongoing and that once an agreement is reached, it will be made available for public comment before a federal judge considers whether to approve it.

"Everyone knows this can be a challenging and expensive problem to solve," MDE spokesman Jay Apperson said. "We're working on an amended consent decree that takes into account the logistical challenges while insisting on continued environmental progress."

In the meantime, city officials said work to meet the original agreement is ongoing.

Art Shapiro, chief of engineering and construction for the city public works department, said he expects a delayed project at the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant to be offered to contractors for bidding by the end of January or early February. The $350 million project, on track to be completed in 2020, would add two tanks that could each hold 16 million gallons of sewage, rather than discharging it into streams when the system is overloaded.

Nearly $550 million in other major projects at Back River, reducing how much nitrogen the plant discharges into the bay, are about a month behind schedule but expected to be completed in 2016 and 2017, Shapiro said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.

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