Federal regulators have offered Mayor Martin O'Malley a settlement that would force the city to make substantial repairs to its aging sewer system at a cost of roughly $900 million, a gargantuan undertaking that could translate into a tripling of sewer bills for Baltimore residents.
O'Malley said yesterday he will meet in the next two weeks with federal attorneys in a last-ditch attempt to soften what he calls a "very unjust" settlement offer, which was completed in recent weeks with the city's attorneys, after more than two years of federal investigation and confidential negotiations to resolve numerous violations of the Clean Water Act.
The city's nearly century-old sewers have long been troubled by overflows that have dumped millions of gallons of raw sewage into tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Justice, joined by state environmental regulators, have threatened a lawsuit under the federal Clean Water Act unless the city agrees to fix those problems quickly.
"They would like us to address this right now in the next few years and put a huge sewer charge only on the citizens of Baltimore to pay for it, and that strikes me on the face of it not to be a very fair way to protect a national environmental asset like the Chesapeake Bay," O'Malley said.
O'Malley said that if he agrees to the settlement as offered, "It could mean a tripling of sewer charges on an annual basis. So instead of paying in the neighborhood of $160 a year, it could mean paying three to four times that amount a year."
The average family of four in the city pays a combined water and sewer bill of about $115 a quarter, among the lowest rates on the East Coast, despite several increases since 1996. That overall bill might double - not triple - because the settlement wouldn't affect water rates. It's possible the city would assess a sewer surcharge, separate from the normal sewer rate, to cover the costs of the federal agreement.
Residents of Baltimore County, which shares the cost of maintaining the city's sewer system, also would have to pay more, but it's unclear how much. And residents of Howard County and parts of Anne Arundel County, who use the city's system, would also be affected.
O'Malley left open the possibility that if his discussions with Justice Department attorneys don't go well, he could reject a settlement and invite a lawsuit. But cities rarely choose that route because regulators can seek heavy fines for Clean Water Act violations that can add up to tens of millions of dollars.
Federal and state officials have refused to comment on the negotiations, but the EPA and Justice Department typically use the threat of lawsuits and heavy fines to force cities to fix dilapidated sewer systems that pose environmental and public health hazards. Several other Eastern cities, including Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Toledo and Miami, have faced similar enforcement actions, as the EPA attempts to speed up repairs of the nation's aging sewer pipes.
O'Malley wants the federal government to share the cost, and he will ask federal regulators to give the city many more years to make the required sewer improvements - both measures would sharply reduce the amount Baltimore residents would have to pay in the next few years.
But the outlook for the mayor is gloomy on both fronts. O'Malley met Thursday with members of Maryland's congressional delegation and left with little hope of an immediate federal bailout.
"To try to get federal dollars for this sort of project on the heels of a war and on the heels of a foolish trillion-dollar tax cut is not an easy thing to achieve," he said. "It's interesting that the same federal government that reduces funds available for these sorts of cleanups is forcing us to shoulder the entire cost ourselves. In essence it means that the cost of cleaning up the bay would fall on the poorest jurisdiction in the state."
And federal regulators may not be sympathetic to the city's pleas for more time. The city has spent tens of millions of dollars in recent years to upgrade its aging sewer system, but federal regulators say that after decades of neglect, such repairs are coming far too slowly.
In Baltimore and other cities across the nation, costs of major sewer repairs are so high that only a lawsuit or court-approved consent decree forces action.
"The reality is, without a regulatory mandate or regulatory hammer or a gun to your head, there is nothing to force the rate increases or the capital expenditures that are necessary," Jay G. Sakai, acting chief of the Department of Public Works' Bureau of Water and Wastewater, said in frank testimony Thursday before the city's Planning Commission.
Sakai told the commission that the expected consent decree will require roughly $700 million in repairs and upgrades of sewer pipes throughout the city. Officials indicated in interviews that the decree could require other construction projects that would cost up to $200 million more.
In anticipation of the settlement, the Department of Public Works has proposed an ambitious list of sewer projects for the next four years totaling $714 million - roughly $550 million more than the department spent in the last four years. The city is also preparing to more than double the amount it can borrow to pay for sewer projects.
The city's sewer system, much of which was built in the early 20th century, carries more than 200 million gallons of waste and water through 3,100 miles of pipes. This underground flow of waste generally runs downhill to two treatment plants, on the Back and Patapsco rivers.
But the aging system has been afflicted by leaks, spills and overflow problems, polluting rivers and streams such as Jones Falls, Gwynns Falls and Herring Run. Some sewer pipes that feed the city's system also take in rainwater, which can lead to overflows during heavy storms that force the diversion of sewage directly into waterways.
Federal officials have said the settlement would be a detailed, comprehensive plan to correct all of the sewer system's problems, including inadequate capacity in some areas, sewage overflows caused by the failure of old or poorly maintained equipment, and chronic leaks.
O'Malley said yesterday that the city has the same goal as federal officials, to protect the Chesapeake Bay. He said the city is borrowing millions to attack the problem of nitrogen discharges into the bay, which he called a more serious environmental threat than the sewage pipes.
And he said the city has addressed some of its sewer pipe problems in the past five years, including fixing 84 of 130 sites designed to divert overflows into creeks, streams and rivers.
"This is something that we've been doing, not as quickly as the federal government would like us to do, not as quickly as we would like to do," O'Malley said. "I'm looking forward to talking to [the attorneys] and other people in the federal government and trying to work out some equitable resolution of this. ... If they don't have any money, one would think they would at least be willing to give more time."
Sun staff writer Heather Dewar contributed to this article.