Contending that the latest plan to fix Baltimore’s leaky sewage system has some big holes in it, Blue Water Baltimore wants a say in the new deal struck between the city and state and federal regulators.
The environmental group filed a motion Wednesday in federal court seeking to intervene in the update of a 14-year-old consent decree that would give the city another 14 years to fix chronic sewage overflows and leaks that have long rendered its harbor and streams unfit for swimming or other human contact.
Halle Van der Gaag, Blue Water Baltimore’s executive director, said the terms of the new decree left her no choice, and her board unanimously agreed to file.
“There’s definitely some improvements (over the old one), but there’s just a whole lot of stuff that’s not in there,” Van der Gaag said.
To settle a federal Clean Water Act lawsuit filed in 2002 by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Maryland Department of the Environment, Baltimore city signed a consent decree pledging to end its frequent sewage overflows by January 2016. But despite spending nearly $900 million since then on repairs, the overflows and leaks continue.
City officials asked regulators for – and received -- more time to pursue more and different upgrades. The additional work, including a major overhaul at the city’s Back River wastewater treatment plant, is expected to cost another $630 million - which city officials say necessitates more increases in utility customer’s sewer bills.
When city officials and regulators proposed the consent decree modifications in June, Van der Gaag had said her group would scrutinize the 91-page agreement to see how enforceable it would be, and whether it would ultimately solve the city’s sewage problems. Public comments are being taken on the agreement until Aug. 8, and regulators have promised to consider them. But after Blue Water Baltimore's lawyers and environmental experts reviewed the plan, Van der Gaag said, the gaps in it were too great to trust they'd be filled that way.
Among the alleged shortcomings, she said, are a lack of firm dates for when work will be finished, and plans to monitor water quality and improve upon pollution loads when they’re shown to be dangerously high. Some of the details are supposed to be spelled out later in plans called for once the federal court finalizes the consent decree, Van der Gaag said, but by then she said there’s no guarantee the public could have a say.
“We want a citizens’ voice. We think this is a real concern for citizens,” she said. If the court grants Blue Water Baltimore’s motion to intervene, she added, then “if for some reason the regulators and the city are totally non-responsive, we have status to go back to court.”
Many residents agree with the demand for specifics. Although city officials assured that overflows would decline dramatically with repairs planned in the next five years, residents of Northwest Baltimore whose homes have been flooded by sewage backups – sometimes repeatedly – angrily demanded more at a June public meeting. Residents told federal, state and city officials there that they wanted more concrete deadlines for when the backups in their neighborhoods would end, and they wanted to be reimbursed for the cleanup costs and damage they have had to pay out of their own pockets, in many cases.
Blue Water Baltimore has started a petition demanding that the plan require actual improvements in water quality after repairs are completed this time, and insisting among other things that the city help residents whose homes have been fouled by sewage backups. The drive has collected more than 1,000 signatures so far, Van der Gaag said.
Unlike other cities, Baltimore’s rivers and harbor have high bacteria concentrations regardless of precipitation, according to a report by the Healthy Harbor initiative, an effort organized by the Waterfront Partnership, a group of businesses, nonprofits and city officials. While many cities still struggle with pollution, the report notes, others - including Boston, Atlanta and Los Angeles - have made significant cleanup progress, proving that it can be done.
Jeff Raymond, chief of communications and community affairs for the city’s Department of Public Works, said Baltimore’s revised consent decree offers a “good, tough approach” and that the city is making a lot of progress. Roughly 80 percent of the sewage backups to homes, by volume, will be taken care of in the next four years, he said.
“We worked hard with our regulators to get the modified consent decree as filed,” Raymond said. “We think that’s a fair document with a good blueprint, but if anyone else seeks to intervene, that’s on them.”
Progress is not as fast as some would like, Raymond said, because Baltimore’s infrastructure is decades old, and the work is expensive. But the city is doing the work - realigning sewer and replacing it, and addressing the backups.
“We’re proud of where we are and where we’re going,” he said.