Blue Water Baltimore asks judge to reject $1.6B sewage plan unless change is made

A local water quality advocacy group is asking a judge to reject the $1.6 billion sewer repair plan Baltimore filed in court this month unless a controversial provision is removed.

The plan commits the city to more than a decade of work to stop leaks from its aged sewer system. But it also says water quality data cannot be used to force the city to do any projects beyond those laid out in the agreement between Baltimore, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Maryland Department of the Environment.

In comments filed in federal court Monday, Blue Water Baltimore called that provision “bad policy, bad science, and in conflict with both the Clean Water Act and the public interest.”

It asked the court not to adopt the agreement until the language is removed.

Sewage routinely leaks from the city’s century-old pipes, and during heavy rains, tens or hundreds of thousands of gallons of sewage-contaminated water can flow directly into the Jones Falls and other waterways.

To stop the leaks, repairs are planned to eliminate a backup of sewage that runs for miles beneath the city and to fix cracked and crumbling pipes.

The leaks are considered a violation of the federal Clean Water Act. The city has been under a consent decree since 2002 requiring it to eventually stop the contamination, but that original agreement expired in 2015. The plan a judge is considering now would replace it, setting new deadlines that extend from 2021 to 2030.

Asked to comment on Blue Water Baltimore’s request, a Baltimore Department of Public Works spokesman said sewers aren’t the only source of pollution affecting city waterways, and the consent decree with EPA is only meant to address sewage contamination.

The department has said the work laid out in the plan will virtually eliminate overflows from the sewer system.

“The city’s streams and harbor are polluted by stormwater runoff and other sources in addition to sewage overflows. The city is tackling those problems, too, and the consent decree is only meant to address the overflows,” said Jeff Raymond, the department spokesman.

Blue Water Baltimore officials said in a statement they are otherwise pleased with the city’s plan — particularly requirements that it address the frequency and cost of sewage backups into homes and businesses, and that it monitor water quality. But they want water quality data to be used to evaluate progress in completing the sewer repairs, and to inform whether more work needs to be done.

“We look forward to working with the City and other stakeholders on implementing a plan that will harness science to stop sewage overflows and improve the health of our waters,” the group said in a statement.

Blue Water Baltimore was granted legal status last year as a party to the negotiations between the city, state and EPA.

The group’s request, and the final agreement, are subject to the approval of the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland.

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