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Baltimore board approves $430 million project to tackle miles-long sewage backup

A Baltimore spending panel on Wednesday approved the city's half of a $430 million project to eliminate a miles-long sewage backup beneath the city.

A misaligned pipe prevents a massive sewage main from fully emptying into the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant, and the problem is blamed for much of the sewage pollution that washes into the Inner Harbor.

The so-called “Headworks project” is perhaps the most important component of a $1.2 billion court order Baltimore faces to clean up its waterways.

The Board of Estimates’ approval of the city’s half of the project’s price tag Wednesday means construction can begin this summer. The work is expected to be finished by the end of 2020, to meet a revised deadline established after the city did not finish sewer upgrades by the end of 2015, as originally required back in 2002.

“This investment will make for a cleaner Baltimore, and go a long way toward helping stop sanitary sewer overflows,” Mayor Catherine Pugh said. “I look forward to having it in operation in a little more than three years from now.”

To help clear backed-up sewage from a 12-foot-wide main that leads to the Back River facility, the project will install four 1,000-horsepower pumps. It will also add four 1,500-horsepower pumps that will turn on when heavy rainfall floods the city’s sewer system. The surge in volume will be diverted to two new storage tanks with a capacity of 36 million gallons, so the wastewater can be processed and treated once storms have passed.

Baltimore’s century-old sewer system is so cracked and worn that stormwater finds its way in, inundating a system that was only designed to handle sewage. The antiquated system was originally designed to release into the Jones Falls and other waterways when overloaded, but under the court order to enforce the federal Clean Water Act, all but two of those relief valves have been closed.

Those two outflows, on the Jones Falls just upstream from Penn Station, are slated to be closed once the Headworks project is completed.

“We’ve known for years that the Headworks Project is an essential step toward helping us meet the terms of our sewer consent decree,” city public works Director Rudolph S. Chow, said. “Our engineers have finally been able to put together a plan to turn it into reality, and build it in a way that is fiscally responsible.”

The city is splitting the project’s cost with Baltimore County. A spokeswoman for the county said in an email that officials support the project and "will work with Baltimore City to ensure that our financial obligations are met."

Clark Construction and U.S. Back River LLC have been hired to complete the project.

Jenn Aiosa, executive director of advocacy group Blue Water Baltimore, said the organization is “happy to see the infrastructure improvements moving forward.” The group has long been a critic of the city’s slow progress at making sewer improvements, and in September was granted legal status to weigh in on the consent decree in court.

Elimination of the sewage backup, which can sometimes stretch from the Back River plant to Charles Village, is key in meeting water quality advocates’ goal of making the Inner Harbor swimmable and fishable.

High levels of fecal bacteria made it unsafe to swim in the Jones Falls and Gwynns Falls virtually all the time in 2016, according to the Healthy Harbor Initiative’s annual harbor report card. In the Inner Harbor, which received an F in the report card, it was only safe to swim 20 percent of the time.

But decreased precipitation, and therefore fewer sewage leaks, made it safe to swim off the waters of Fort McHenry almost 90 percent of the time last year, according to the report card. Water quality advocates said that suggests that dramatic improvements will be seen once the Headworks project eliminates the sewage backup.

The project is also expected to reduce sewage backups in basements around the city. A Baltimore Sun report last year found that sewage backs up into homes a dozen times a day, on average.

NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect Baltimore County's response.

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