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Overhaul of sewer system looks likely


Baltimore County has tentatively agreed to make more than $800 million in repairs and improvements to its aging sewer system and to pay a $750,000 fine for past sewage spills under a proposed settlement with state and federal environmental agencies and the Department of Justice.

The consent decree, scheduled for discussion at Tuesday's County Council work session, would require county officials to not only fix and upgrade the system - a network of 3,000 miles of sewer lines and 111 pumping stations that handle about 40 billion gallons a year -but to look for potential problems before they occur.

"The idea is they're upping the ante," said Edward C. Adams Jr., the county's public works director. "It's a new level of expectation."

The proposed agreement, which would require the county to make changes over the next 14 1/2 years, is among several negotiated with local governments across the country over the past several years to resolve violations of the Clean Water Act. In 2002, Baltimore City officials agreed to pay a $600,000 fine and make $900 million in repairs to correct problems that sent more than 100 million gallons of sewage into the city's waterways over a six-year period.

"Anywhere you have aged infrastructure, there are going to be problems just by the virtue of failure of construction over time," said Victoria Woodward, executive director of Safe Waterways in Maryland, a nonprofit educational and advocacy group.

County officials maintain that the sewage overflow, averaging less than 10 million gallons a year, is far less severe than in other jurisdictions across the country, and that they have a well-run and well-maintained network.

Still, there have been some high-profile incidents, including back-to-back spills in spring 2002: A 5 million-gallon raw sewage spill into the Gunpowder Falls was followed by 190,000 gallons discharged into School House Cove and Bear Creek a week later.

The Maryland Department of the Environment approached Baltimore County in 2001 about a solution to overflow problems, county officials said. The Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Justice later became involved, sparking several years of negotiations.

Jackie Lesch, a Department of Justice spokeswoman, and Richard McIntire, an MDE spokesman, said Friday that they could not comment on the case because the settlement is not final.

All told, state and federal officials contend there have been more than 600 spills in the county dating to July 1997, although they focused on 365 spills in negotiating the fine, according to an executive summary of the proposed settlement prepared by Assistant County Attorney James J. Nolan Jr.

Under the resulting consent decree, the county would agree to perform an estimated $811 million in work on its system over the 14 1/2 -year period. County officials say they had already planned for about $346 million of the total and are in the process of bidding $40 million in projects designed to increase the capacity of the White Marsh and Stemmers Run pumping stations.

In addition to the fine - half of which would go to the federal government, the other half to the state - the county also would agree to take part in three environmental projects expected to cost $4.5 million. The largest is a $3 million payment toward the design of a nutrient-removal project at the city's Patapsco Wastewater Treatment Plant.

The agreement requires a signature from County Executive James T. Smith Jr. Council members are scheduled to vote June 20 on whether to authorize him to sign the document. Once approved by all parties, Department of Justice officials would file a lawsuit that would include the settlement agreement in federal court, county officials said.

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