City leaders on Wednesday approved a $1.6 billion plan to rehabilitate Baltimore's aged sewer system and stop wastewater from leaking into the Inner Harbor by 2030 — 15 years after an earlier missed deadline.
The consent agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency will have direct financial consequences for residents, who will pay for the work through years of expected sewer bill increases in the city, and potentially in surrounding counties that use Baltimore water infrastructure. At the same time, they could receive financial assistance from the city if sewage backs up into their homes under a new program offering at least $2 million a year to cover cleanup costs.
Backups occur more than a dozen times a day, on average, but the city is rarely found responsible for cleanup costs, The Baltimore Sun has reported.
Critics said the city's plan does not ensure the investments will restore the ecology of the Inner Harbor or make it safe for swimming. While officials say the list of sewer repair and upgrade projects they have laid out will virtually eliminate leaks that routinely send millions of gallons of sewage-contaminated wastewater into the Chesapeake Bay, the city under the agreement cannot be forced to do work beyond that -- even if fecal bacteria continues to make its way into the harbor.
"It's a little baffling," said Angela Haren, the Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper and director of advocacy for nonprofit Blue Water Baltimore. "It undermines the whole goal of the consent decree."
The plan, unanimously approved Wednesday by the city Board of Estimates, is the product of years of negotiations between the city and regulators who are concerned with the environmental and health impacts of sewage contamination. It replaces an agreement the city struck with the EPA in 2002 but then failed to satisfy, blowing past a deadline to complete repairs and upgrades by the end of 2015.
"Developing the modified Consent Decree for Baltimore's sewer system has been a lengthy process, but we now have a document that will assure accountability and credibility for the City," Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh said in a statement. "I am confident that we will meet the terms of this legal agreement."
The agreement requires Baltimore to finish major upgrades at the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant by 2021, improvements expected to allow the city to clear a 10-mile backup of sewage under ground. And it sets a 2030 deadline for the city to inspect and replace sewage mains and complete other projects.
Officials also must produce regular reports detailing progress and disclosing when and where sewage is released into waterways or backs up into homes or businesses.
Residents who spoke before the vote Wednesday said they were concerned the agreement was not stringent enough. The public was not given a chance to review its contents before the board voted because city and EPA lawyers said it had to remain confidential while under negotiation.
Helena Hicks, a city civil rights icon whose northwest Baltimore neighborhood has endured an epidemic of sewage backups, said 13 years was too long to wait for fixes.
"The longer you give people, the more problems will arise," Hicks said. "They will not be rapidly moving if they know they can take their time."
Jeffrey Raymond, spokesman for the Department of Public Works, said engineers and construction crews are working as quickly as possible.
"It's a complex, time-consuming, invasive and very expensive process," he said of repairs to the infrastructure system that is more than a century old. "Even if we did have a lot more money to throw at it, which we don't, we just can't change the amount of time it takes to complete a massive project like that."
Basement backups emerged as a key concern in discussions about sewer repairs after reports by The Baltimore Sun and the Washington-based group the Environmental Integrity Project showed how frequently they occur, costing residents thousands of dollars and, in some cases, their homeowner's insurance policies.
The backups can in part be traced to the city's work to meet the 2002 agreement. The system was designed more than a century ago with 62 outflows through which sewage washes into waterways when pipes are overloaded. The city has closed all but two of them, reducing waterway contamination but also increasing backups. There were 622 backups reported across the city in 2004, as sewer repair work began, and about 5,000 a year today.
A draft of the consent decree released last June did not address backups, but after advocates pressed the city on the problem, the final version includes plans to launch a program offering residents up to $2,500 in assistance for each backup in their homes. Officials said it will start as a three-year pilot program and be replaced with something through the life of the consent agreement.
“The city appears to be at least taking a step in the right direction,” said Tom Pelton, a spokesman for the Environmental Integrity Project. “We have to make sure that the city fairly compensates people and responds quickly to incidents.”
The program will run independently of an existing reimbursement process that covers cleanup costs only if a backup can be traced to a problem the city was aware of but did not address. The city is rarely found responsible in those reviews, The Sun reported last year.
Officials with Blue Water Baltimore, which last year was granted legal status as a party to negotiations between the city and EPA, said they see the new document as an improvement over earlier versions but remain concerned the city isn't being held accountable for needed improvements in water quality. They pressed for the sewer plan to be tied to measured improvements in water quality, but said what was adopted Wednesday doesn't meet that goal.
"Blue Water Baltimore's top concern is that the consent decree be an enforceable, science-based plan to eliminate sewage overflows and improve water quality, as required by the Clean Water Act, not just a static list of projects," Haren said.
The group also raised concern that many of the city's obligations aren't spelled out clearly enough in the agreement.
The document calls for officials to create plans detailing how they will inspect and replace sewer lines, operate and maintain the system and investigate sewage leaks that aren't related to heavy rainfall, as most are. When other cities have reached similar agreements with the EPA, those sorts of plans are spelled out in the documents filed in court, but Haren said Baltimore's leaves the details to be worked out later.
The EPA can enforce the agreement through financial penalties. If the city misses any of the deadlines laid out in the agreement — including targets for completing infrastructure projects, reporting leaks and releasing progress reports — the costs could rise by thousands of dollars each day in potential fines. The EPA charged a $600,000 penalty for violations of the 2002 consent decree.
The city has already spent nearly $1 billion on repairs tied to the 2002 agreement, leading sewer rates to skyrocket. Customers pay about $6.71 per 100 cubic feet of wastewater they send into the system as of July 1, or about $30 per month for a typical customer — about three times as much as in 2002. The rate will rise another 9 percent next year.
Raymond said city residents can expect further increases in years to come.
"We can't continue to have sewer water discharge into our streams," he said. "These are expensive projects. There's no more available money."
The EPA and Maryland Department of the Environment must sign off on the agreement before it is formally adopted and filed in federal court. An EPA spokesman did not respond to a reporter's question. Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles, who called the plan "a better contract for clean water and environmental justice," said the state plans to "move forward very soon."
Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.