Shortfall puts sewage plant upgrades in jeopardy

The Baltimore Sun

Eleven sewage treatment plants across Maryland have been upgraded, using the state's "flush tax" to reduce pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. But as plans move ahead to improve 55 other plants, officials say the costs are likely to exceed the revenue by about $245 million over the next decade.

Robert Summers, deputy environment secretary, told the House Environmental Matters Committee that the state has spent $115 million toward the upgrades. In addition to those finished, nine are under construction and 19 projects are being designed. The upgrades allow the plants to remove more harmful nitrogen from municipal wastewater.

But estimated costs of completing the upgrades have increased to more than $1 billion. With work expected to start next year on Baltimore's Back River and Patapsco plants, Summers said the fund may run short of money by 2012, before those projects are to be completed.

He said increasing by $1 the $2.50 monthly fee charged all Maryland sewer customers would close the projected funding gap. Other options include requiring local governments to shoulder some of the costs or delaying some of the work. The O'Malley administration has asked for federal money to help with some projects, particularly the state's share of improving the Blue Plains treatment plant on the Potomac River, which serves the Washington area.

Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, the panel chairwoman, said lawmakers do not want to increase the fee. McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat, said she hoped the state might get federal help. Some of the upgrades were listed among the "shovel-ready" infrastructure construction projects that state officials have proposed for federal economic stimulus aid.

About 453 homes have received $19 million in grants from a related fund to replace old septic systems with less-polluting ones. But applications have soared since the state began advertising the grants last fall. The fund can pay for about 600 replacements a year - a small fraction of the state's 420,000 septic systems.

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