Federal and Maryland regulators have agreed to give the city of Baltimore another 14 ½ years to fix chronic sewage overflows and leaks that have long rendered its harbor and urban watershed unfit for swimming or other human contact.
Under the agreement — which modifies a 2002 consent decree that failed to end overflows — Baltimore officials expect to spend another $1.2 billion on sewer repairs and upgrades. That’s on top of nearly $900 million city officials say has already been spent over the past 14 years on the leak-plugging effort.
Federal, state and city officials say they expect overflows to be greatly reduced within the next five years under the 91-page agreement, which was filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. The pact sets a January 2021 deadline for completing more than 20 repair projects, including a costly fix for an underground sewage backup caused by misaligned pipes at the Back River wastewater treatment plant.
But the city would have another decade — until December 2030 — to finish overhauling its 1,400-mile sewer system so it can withstand moderate rainstorms without overflowing. Then the city would be required to monitor the situation for two more years — to 2032 — to make sure the fixes worked.
“I think we have the right plan in place now,” said Rudy Chow, Baltimore’s public works director. Repairs to be made within the next five years should reduce the amount of sewage getting into the city’s water ways by up to 83 percent, Chow said.
That would seem to fall short of the goal set by Baltimore’s “Healthy Harbor” campaign, under which business leaders, environmental activists and city officials sought to make the harbor safe for swimming by 2020.
Though promising to dramatically cut down on overflows and leaks, the city’s public works director declined to predict when — or if — bacteria levels in the harbor and the two rivers that feed into it will be reduced enough to make them safe for swimming, wading and other recreation.
Shawn Garvin, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Mid-Atlantic regional administrator, called the agreement “the best path forward to eliminating sanitary sewer overflows, while also providing greater transparency.” Ben Grumbles, secretary of the Maryland Department of the Environment, called it a “mandate for clean water and public accountability” that he said should result in less sewage backing up in homes, cleaner water ways and a healthier Chesapeake Bay.
Environmental activists were more guarded, noting the city has already had 14 years to fix the overflows, and failed to do so. The deadline for eliminating them under the original consent decree was Jan. 1, 2016 — six months ago.
That 2002 decree settled an enforcement action by EPA and MDE alleging that the city was violating the Clean Water Act by allowing hundreds of raw sewage discharges annually through its sewer system, parts of which are more than 100 years old. The decree was one of the first EPA had negotiated nationwide to get a municipality to fix systemic sewage overflows. City officials contend regulators set an unrealistic deadline, and failed to anticipate how much additional work would be needed.
Halle Van der Gaag, executive director of Blue Water Baltimore, said she was pleased to finally see a new plan for fixing the city’s aged sewer system. Her group had sued unsuccessfully in 2013 to intervene when the city and regulators began closed-door talks about revising the consent decree.
The new decree appears to address problems her group has long complained about, Van der Gaag said, including the city's failure to deal with sewage leaks into the storm drains and its failure to notify the public about large sewage discharges from intentionally unplugged overflow outfalls. But she said the group is still reviewing the decree to see how enforceable it is, and if there are any gaps.
Alison Prost, Maryland director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said her group also has questions about the decree’s enforceability. “There were deadlines in the 2002 decree, and they haven’t met them,” she said. “We’re going to look to see what accountability is built into this that wasn’t in the last one.”
Tom Pelton, communications director for the Environmental Integrity Project, called the nearly 15-year extension “disappointing.” He also castigated the agreement’s failure to offer low-income city residents any help cleaning up when sewage backs up into their homes.
Even as city officials labored over the past 14 years to fix sewage overflows into streams, backups into people’s homes have increased, to about 5,000 annually lately. City officials say the overflow repairs they were required to make early on under the original consent decree actually worsened the backups. At the direction of state and federal regulators, they say, they closed off 60 of 62 “structured” overflow outfalls that had been intentionally built into the sewer system years ago. Those had served as “relief” valves, diverting untreated sewage to nearby streams whenever lines began to back up because of blockages or rainfall getting into sewer lines and filling them up.
The number of backups reported to City Hall began to spike after those 60 outfalls were sealed up, said Dana Cooper, DPW’s chief of legal and regulatory affairs. They should decline dramatically over the next five years, city officials said, as the projects listed in the agreement are finished - with the two remaining unplugged outfalls among the last to be done. But the city rarely compensates property owners for cleanup costs and damage caused by backups. Public works officials say not all backups are the city’s fault, and in any case it’s up to the city’s lawyers, not them, to decide when the city is legally required to pay.
To date, the city has completed 11 repair projects it had promised under the old consent decree, and work is under way or about to begin on another 12, officials say. Eleven more projects are still under design or in early stages of being contracted out.
The work still to be done is expected to cost $630 million, on top of $867 million spent so far. The bulk of the additional expense is for “headworks” repair at the Back River wastewater plant, another problem discovered after the original consent decree was issued. There, a 12-foot diameter main is misaligned, with roughly half of it below the inlet pipe to the treatment plant. The misconnect, whether from faulty construction or land settlement, restricts the flow of sewage and leaves some untreated waste backed up 10 miles underground.
The city recently issued a preliminary contract to fix the Back River flow restriction. The $350 million project aims to pump the stagnant sewage up into the treatment plant, and to build massive storage tanks capable of holding rain-swollen wastewater during storms until it can be treated, rather than letting it spill into streams.
Meanwhile, the city will have to promptly report and publicize previously undisclosed discharges of sewage via the two “overflow” outfalls that have been left unplugged. Environmental activists have been critical of the city’s failure to announce those routine overflows. The Environmental Integrity Project reported last year that the two unclosed outfalls had dumped 330 million gallons of untreated waste into the Jones Falls over the previous five years.
Once the list of repair projects is finished, the second phase of the agreement requires the city to analyze and upgrade the capacity of the system to handle infiltration of rainfall without overflowing. Lines in "sensitive" areas, near schools, hospitals and waterways, will have to be able to handle storms that fall once every 10 years, on average, while the rest of the system must only withstand storms of the intensity that hit every five years. Preliminarily, city officials estimate that up to 300 miles of lines may need to be enlarged to handle such rain-swollen flows, at a projected cost of $548 million. But those figures are subject to change, Chow cautioned, once officials can assess the impact of repairs made up to that point.
In addition to fixing broken pipes and upgrading others, the city will have to regularly inspect and maintain the entire system — something Chow said was not done in years past. The revised agreement requires pipes to be checked every seven years, at a minimum, with more frequent checks in “hot spots” with a history of blockages or overflows. City officials estimate the enhanced maintenance effort and monitoring of sewage flows will cost $85 million over the next 15 years.
The new agreement also will require the city to investigate and repair leaks that aren’t necessarily weather-related, including sewage leaking into a storm drain and out into a stream when it isn’t raining. Activists have complained that such leaks often don’t get fixed because the city isn’t required to do them under the existing consent decree.
“We and the regulators believe when we do all this work, you’ll see an improvement in water quality,” said the DPW’s Cooper. But the decree does include a provision, she noted, where regulators can send the city back to the drawing board if the repairs don’t yield the desired results.
The additional work to be done under the new consent decree will require more increases in sewer rates, said the city’s public works director. Officials are still figuring out the next rate hike request, Chow said, but said he hoped it would be less than 10 percent. The city has raised its sewer rate each of the past three years, by 15, 11 and 11 percent, respectively.
“Obviously we don’t want to increase more than we need to, but the rate has to go up to sustain all the investments we need to do,” Chow said.
In a city with a large low-income population, Chow said, city officials pressed federal and state regulators during negotiations over the new consent decree to keep the repair timetable affordable. Giving the city 15 years instead of 10 reduced the cost to residents, the public works director said.
“This is not a city with plentiful money,” Chow said, “So that means we’ve got to do it wisely, but not on the cheap. We want to do it correctly so we don’t have an issue that we’ll have to deal with down the road.”
But the Bay Foundation’s Prost said she believes the Department of Public Works needs to provide more information first.
“Before we settle on the fact that rate increases have to happen,” Prost said, “I hope the agencies, the administration and citizens say, ‘What have you collected, where has it gotten you, what’s needed for the next projects?’”
Prost also suggested that any penalties the city might have to pay for violations of the consent decree terms should be used to compensate homeowners who suffer sewage backups. The city would be liable for penalties under the new agreement for missing deadlines to submit reports or to complete repairs, but also for any further overflows - from $100 for less than 100 gallons released, up to $15,000 for a leak of 1 million or more gallons. The city has paid a combined $1.8 million in penalties under the old consent decree.
Members of the public have 60 days to review and comment on the proposed agreement before it can be finalized by the court. A public information meeting on the pact has been scheduled for 7 p.m. June 7 at the MDE headquarters, 1800 Washington Boulevard, Baltimore. The document is available here.