After spending $700 million over the past 13 years, the city of Baltimore plans to drop another $400 million to fix an aging, leaky sewer system that routinely fouls areas streams and the harbor with raw human waste.
But less than four months before a court-ordered deadline, the overhaul is nowhere near done.
Whenever the rain pours — and even when it doesn't — the city's streams and harbor are still so contaminated by raw human waste spilled from corroding, porous sewer lines that it's unsafe in most places for people to swim or wade. It's risky to kayak or even fish without scrubbing afterward to clean off potentially disease-causing bacteria.
"We've done a ton of work," said Dana Cooper, chief of legal and regulatory affairs for the city's Department of Public Works. "We still have a lot of work to do."
The city has rehabilitated 85 miles of sewer lines, plugged dozens of overflows and is doing $250 million worth of sewer cleaning and rehab now. But some repair projects are not expected to be finished until 2018, and one critical, but massive fix — which pushes the price tag over $1 billion — has not even begun.
Nearly 150 large cities and counties are under federal consent decrees to stop chronic sewage overflows and leaks, including Baltimore County, which pipes its wastewater to the city to be treated. With nearly $500 million spent so far upgrading sewage pumping stations and fixing failing pipes, the county projects its total bill may run as high as $1.5 billion. But county officials say they're on track to finish by their mandated deadline of 2020.
City officials say they're seeking more time from state and federal regulators, and hope to have something worked out soon. They won't say, though, exactly how much longer it could take to get sewage out of the water. Nor will they predict how much more money city residents and businesses might have to pay.
Those details are being hashed out in what Cooper called "confidential settlement discussions" with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Maryland Department of the Environment. To divulge them now, she contended, could affect the city's efforts to change the court-approved consent decree it signed in 2002, agreeing to stop the sewage leaks and overflows by Jan. 1, 2016.
State and federal officials also declined to go into detail but said the city is not under any gag orders.
The public won't be left in the dark if a deal is reached, officials added. Any changes to the city's consent decree that regulators accept would be filed in U.S. District Court, where people would have 30 days to review the proposal and urge a federal judge to accept or reject it.
But environmental advocates say they're frustrated by the lack of transparency about such a costly and plodding undertaking. They contend that the city underreports sewer leaks and overflows, and worry the repairs won't be enough to make local waters fit for recreation in the near future.
"If they haven't done it in 13 years, what assurances do we have we're going to see better progress?" asked Halle van der Gaag, executive director of Blue Water Baltimore, a watershed watchdog group.
She said people have a right to know more about what's taken so long, because they've been paying for it with repeated increases in their water and sewer bills — the latest a 11 percent increase this year alone.
"It would be good to have a clear picture at this time [of] just how far we've come and how far we have to go," said David Flores, the Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper.
In a wastewater system begun more than a century ago, sewer lines are often 70 to 80 years old, city officials say. Some simply aren't big enough to handle the flow of wastewater generated today.
Many overflows stem from blockages in sewer lines. Statewide, 40 percent of overflows reported in dry weather are blamed on grease, rags, trash and "other inappropriate material" in the sewer, according to information local agencies supply to the state Department of the Environment.
"There's a large percentage of these overflows that are occurring simply because of people's behavior," said Lori Lilly, an independent environmental consultant who analyzed the data.
Such blockages cause many sewage leaks, city officials said. To combat them, nearly 4,000 restaurants have been inspected and pressed not to put fats, oil or grease down drains, where buildups can eventually clog sewer lines.
Many problems, though, stem from age and lack of maintenance. Cracks, breaks and corrosion have made buried pipes leaky. Groundwater, rainfall and water main leaks routinely seep into the sewer lines, filling them to overflowing during downpours. In dry weather, sewage leaks out, often making it into streams via similarly leaky pipes meant to carry stormwater runoff from streets.
Finding, fixing and replacing those problems is costly, running into billions of dollars for larger communities. That's why it's taken legal pressure from federal and state regulators to get local politicians to raise water and sewer rates to pay for the overhauls.
Over grumbles from the Baltimore County Council, County Executive Kevin Kamenetz increased water and sewer rates 15 percent this year, and he didn't rule out further increases to pay for overhauling the county's system, which sees dozens of overflows each year.
Elected city officials also complained about repeated water and sewer rate increases.
"I want to see the end of the tunnel," said City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young. "I don't want this to go on for another 15 or 20 years. It needs to get done."
The city has done a lot already. In addition to rehabbing 85 miles of sewer lines, public works officials say they've checked 33,000 manholes and inspected 1,100 miles of sewer lines.
And they've sealed all but two of the 62 overflow pipes built into the system years ago to prevent sewage from backing up into people's homes — by letting it pour untreated into the nearest stream and, ultimately, into the harbor and the Patapsco River.
The two outfalls that remain open routinely spew diluted but raw sewage into the Jones Falls during heavy rains. Cooper said those overflows must continue until the city fixes what she called a "staggering" plumbing problem at the 104-year-old Back River wastewater treatment plant.
Engineers discovered a few years back that a large conduit carrying sewage into the plant was seriously misaligned, Cooper explained, backing up waste in the system for miles and limiting the pipes' ability to handle a sudden influx of rain during storms. It's not clear if the pipe was installed incorrectly or gradually settled 61/2 feet over the years.
"However it happened, now we need to fix it," Cooper said.
Correcting the problem will be a huge undertaking, costing $400 million and taking at least two years, officials say. The city is weighing bids now to install pumps at Back River that could divert backed-up sewage to huge new above-ground storage tanks. Those tanks could hold up to 36 million gallons of waste until a storm subsides, officials say, when the sewage could be fed more gradually into the treatment plant.
Once finished, the pumps and tanks could take care of 80 percent of the city's sewage overflows, officials contend.
Work is also underway on rehabilitating another 90 miles of sewer lines, public works officials say. One of the more challenging jobs is a $16 million upgrade of an "interceptor" line collecting sewage from West Baltimore. To install a larger pipe, an Eldersburg contractor has spent the past year boring a nearly half-mile tunnel through bedrock beneath streets, rail lines, businesses and homes.
"I've worked a lot of places, and [Baltimore] has got some of the more challenging geology," said Todd Brown, project manager for Bradshaw Construction. Crews have been working 20 hours a day to carve out the last leg of the tunnel.
That and most of the other rehab projects are to be finished by year's end, though some aren't expected to be done until 2018. Beyond that, it's not clear how much more may be needed.
City officials say there are limits to what should be expected of a system so old — and of a community as financially strapped as Baltimore.
"The Clean Water Act says no overflows, no unpermitted discharges from the system," Cooper said. "However, it is physically impossible to create a system that will never overflow ever in any storm under any conditions. ... You'd have to dig up the entire [network] underneath the city and replace everything. And even then you might not control for the biggest hurricane we've seen."
City officials initially argued that Baltimore's sewer system should only have to guard against overflows from a relatively mild rainstorm, of the intensity that happens every couple of years. Regulators rejected that as inadequate, so city officials say they're now working to prevent overflows from a "five-year" storm — one that deposits more than 4 inches of rain in a day. Sensitive areas near streams, schools and hospitals would have to be protected against heavier rainfalls.
Baltimore County, by comparison, is required to prevent overflows from a once-in-a-decade storm, which dumps nearly 5 inches of rain in 24 hours, officials said.
Asked why the city isn't being required to meet the same standard, Jay Apperson, spokesman for the state Department of the Environment, said the city contended it would require far more sewer line replacement and more storage — nearly tripling the size of the tanks needed at the Back River treatment plant.
"We take ratepayers into consideration to get to that end point," said Michelle Price-Fay, water discharge enforcement branch chief for the EPA's Mid-Atlantic regional office in Philadelphia.
But if water quality still doesn't meet federal requirements after all the planned repairs have been finished, she added, "we have to keep going."
In the city's case, if overflows continue after the projects underway and about to be launched are finished, more repairs would be called for, said Nancy Young, an assistant attorney general representing the state Department of the Environment.
Meanwhile, the city has been fined $1.7 million by the state and federal governments for continuing overflows and other violations of the consent decree, according to the EPA. Baltimore County has paid $250,000 in penalties for straying from its consent decree, with additional fines possible for more recent problems, according to the MDE.
As of Sept. 2, the city reported releasing 750,000 gallons of sewage into local waters this year from 381 separate overflows. By comparison, 9.7 million gallons overflowed last year — the bulk during a record one-day summer downpour.
Environmental advocates contend that the city has been underreporting overflows, an allegation state officials say they're investigating. Baltimore County, for instance, reports many fewer overflows than the city, but the reported volume of sewage released is often an order of magnitude higher.
Blue Water Baltimore's Flores said the city reports no sewage discharged in many of the overflows it reports to the state. But Public Works spokesman Jeff Raymond explained city inspectors often don't get to a reported overflow until it's stopped and can't estimate how much escaped.
In any case, city officials say water quality is improving, with fecal bacteria levels declining in streams flowing into the harbor. They attribute the decline at least partly to the sewer overhaul, but acknowledge that weather also could have helped. Even so, bacteria levels in the Gwynns Falls and Jones Falls, which flow from Baltimore County through the city to the harbor, generally remain higher than is considered safe for swimming — often much higher.
In the lower Gwynns Falls, for instance, Blue Water Baltimore found 12,000 colonies of Enterococcus fecal bacteria per 100 milliliters of water in a sample taken last month in South Baltimore near Interstate 95. The state rates water at a high risk for recreation when there are more than 151 colonies.
Upstream in suburban Owings Mills, there were 2,400 colonies per 100 milliliters. Bacteria counts in the Jones Falls were lower, but still considered high risk.
Coming in contact with water containing fecal bacteria from human or animal waste can lead to gastrointestinal distress, skin and eye infections and, sometimes, more serious illnesses.
"After a storm, we go out on the Jones Falls Trail," Flores said, "and there's wastewater debris everywhere."
Michael Hankin, chairman of the Waterfront Partnership, a harbor-area business group that's pushing to make the harbor swimmable by 2020, said he's confident the city has the leadership and money to take care of the trash and sewage degrading the area's waters. But he agrees that City Hall should be more forthcoming about how it plans to fix the problems, by when and at what cost.
"Because we can't afford to be wrong," said Hankin, president and CEO of Brown Advisory, an investment firm in Fells Point. "We can't wait five years, and go 'Oops! Wrong project. Wrong financial model.'
"I'm going to swim across the harbor by 2020," Hankin added. "I hope to do it sooner."