Baltimore County's sewer plans are murky

You may not like reading about sewage infrastructure, but you probably like polluted waterways even less. Want to cool off in local waters? Don’t even think about it at Lake Roland. Blue Water Baltimore has given a grade of “F” for the water quality in Lake Roland and its tributaries — including Towson Run and Roland Run, which have sewer pipes beside or beneath them.

And here’s why things are about to get worse: Baltimore County is adding two new sewer lines — one from downtown Towson and another from the west — that will join three existing lines that flow into one big pipe called an interceptor under Lake Roland.

But look at the math. The Lake Roland interceptor is a 42-inch pipe. The three existing feeder pipes are 42-, 30- and 24-inches — well beyond the destination pipe’s capacity, according to county documents. And the new relief sewers will further exceed the interceptor’s capacity.

During dry weather, the Lake Roland interceptor can handle flows from the current lines. However, intense storms can push the Lake Roland interceptor to 125 percent and even 144 percent of capacity, according to county documents. This causes raw sewage leaks and spills from sewers.

Aggravating our sewer woes: apparent lack of coordination between Baltimore City and the county. Lake Roland is on city land in the county. But the county has leased it from the city since 2009. Apparently neither identified potential capacity issues, nor planned for the six-decade-old interceptor’s repair or replacement. The county’s attitude seemed to be: Get the sewage to Lake Roland, and then it’s not our problem. Building a system designed to fail is hardly a high-water mark in responsible government.

The county should further care because it’s likely violating a 2005 consent decree with the EPA and the Maryland Department of the Environment. To settle claims that it had violated the Clean Water Act and state laws, the county agreed to pay $750,000 in fines and to eliminate sewage spills. Both agencies told the Green Towson Alliance that they have questioned Baltimore County about its sewer disclosures and plans.

Towson's development boom is likely to further affect sewage capacity in the future. On the drawing board is Towson Row — the problem-plagued project led by developer Caves Valley Partners in downtown Towson that includes a 220-room hotel along with 250 apartment units and 300 high-rise student units for Towson University. And the university’s 2015 master plan also calls for housing for 3,500 more students than it had in 2009. Of course, other residential and commercial projects are already in the works for downtown Towson. Such construction will certainly contribute to traffic jams, and likely sewer jams, too.

If you’re not outraged by fouled waterways, maybe you’ll worry about increased tax bills. Somebody must pay the millions of dollars for new sewer lines. Maryland state laws say that building permits cannot be given unless the sewage system can handle the proposed building. (Developers can pay fees for sewer system expansion to avoid delays.) Who will pay for the two new sewer lines to Lake Roland? Taxpayers should pay to fix leaky sewage lines, but when developers build new projects that require sewer system upgrades, they should pay.

All of these issues are especially timely as the Baltimore County Planning Board is holding a hearing Thursday on the triennial review of water supply and sewers.

What needs to be done? Don’t look to County Executive Kevin Kamenetz for the answer; he seems too cozy with developers to do the right thing. (As evidence, see the proposed Royal Farms at York Road and Bosley Avenue that he's trying to push through over widespread community opposition.)

The people of Baltimore County should insist on transparency from the county government and that it abide by the rule of law. And the Baltimore County Council must meet its responsibilities to the environment and taxpayers and fix this mess before it leaves an even bigger stain on our environment and our county.

Tom McCord is a member of the Green Towson Alliance; he can be reached at https://www.facebook.com/GreenTowsonAlliance. Brian Simpson (briansimpson99@gmail.com) lives in Towson.

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