Final vote on $1.6B sewer repair plan scheduled for Wednesday, but details being withheld

Baltimore's Board of Estimates is scheduled to vote Wednesday on a $1.6 billion plan to rebuild the city’s leaky sewer system, but the details won’t be made public until then.

A summary of the plan obtained by The Baltimore Sun shows some significant changes since a draft of the long-delayed project was released more than a year ago.

In response to concerns from environmental groups and residents, the city has agreed to do more to provide compensation when sewage backs up into basements, a problem that The Sun reported last year occurs more than a dozen times a day, on average. The city will also have to more proactively investigate sewage leaks that are not caused by heavy rainfall, as most are.

The plan is designed to virtually eliminate sewage contamination that plagues Baltimore waterways, making them unsafe for human contact and ecologically imbalanced. The federal Environmental Protection Agency is requiring the work to bring the city in compliance with the Clean Water Act.

A spokesman for Mayor Catherine Pugh said he could not release the consent agreement, which will be filed in federal court prior to Wednesday’s vote, based on advice from city lawyers.

“The mayor has been briefed on the changes and finds them reasonable and acceptable,” spokesman Anthony McCarthy said.

A spokesman for the city Department of Public Works referred a reporter to the Board of Estimates, whose members include the mayor, City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young and Comptroller Joan Pratt. Young and Pratt also declined to share the document.

“I can’t release something the attorneys are saying we’re not allowed to release,” said Lester Davis, a spokesman for Young.

An EPA spokesman said the agency did not instruct city officials to keep the agreement confidential but that parties "are not supposed to share the details of matters which are considered to be in negotiations."

The sewer repair plan includes $681 million in work at the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant, $567 million to improve the sewer system’s hydraulic capacity and $359 million for preventive maintenance, inspections and cleaning of the system. The treatment plant work is needed to eliminate a waste backup that extends 10 miles beneath the city.

Other work will repair and replace cracked and decaying pipes that allow rainwater to infiltrate the sewers, washing waste into waterways, and will close the last two of more than 60 outflows that were designed a century ago to dump into streams when the system is overloaded.

The city has already spent $977 million toward complying with the Clean Water Act since first reaching a consent agreement with EPA in 2002. It missed its original deadline, the end of 2015, and now repairs look to stretch to 2030.

On the revised agreement, the public was given two months to offer input on the plan last summer. Officials received about 30 comments, including pressure from groups such as Blue Water Baltimore and the Environmental Integrity Project to address basement backups and investigate sunny-day sewage leaks.

But the public won’t know if or how those concerns have been addressed until Wednesday, “basically preventing any meaningful public comment,” said Tom Pelton, a spokesman for the Washington-based project.

“I think it’s undemocratic that the city government will spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a consent decree that the public and the press can’t even see before it is approved,” Pelton said.

Officials from Blue Water Baltimore said they could not comment on the plan until it is finalized because last fall they won a petition to become a legal party to court proceedings on the matter. But Angela Haren, who works for the group as the Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper, said the timing of the plan’s public release is worrisome.

“A prime concern we've had from the beginning is that the public is getting adequate information,” she said. “If the public doesn’t have an opportunity to see a complex document such as the consent decree prior to a vote on it, that doesn't provide an opportunity to weigh in.”

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