Regulators, city agree to $1.2 billion in sewer system upgrades through 2030

Regulators, city agree to $1.2 billion in sewer system upgrades through 2030

State and federal regulators are giving Baltimore another five years to repair and replace cracked and aging portions of its sewer system and prevent waste from routinely fouling waterways.

An agreement filed Wednesday in federal court commits the city to $1.2 billion worth of work over the next 15 years, with a deadline of 2021 for key projects, and other work to be completed by the end of 2030.

The pact between the city, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Maryland Department of the Environment replaces a similar consent decree struck in 2002, which expired six months ago.

The city spent $867 million on repairs over the past 14 years, but rain still frequently washes raw sewage into the Patapsco River, making it unsafe for swimming and at times uninhabitable for wildlife.

The new plan requires almost three dozen projects to repair and replace worn and obsolete sections of the century-old system by 2021, including closing two pipes that release waste directly into the Jones Falls during heavy rains.

Regulators estimate that that work would cut sewage leaks by 83 percent.

"This mandate for clean water and public accountability means less sewage in basements, streets and waterways and more progress for the Chesapeake Bay," said Ben Grumbles, Maryland's secretary of the environment.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said the agreement "ensures the long-term integrity of the city's sewer infrastructure."

City officials said one-third of the most pressing projects required in the agreement by 2021 are already completed and the others are in the process of being designed or constructed.

The city also must prepare a plan for a second phase of work that will extend through 2030, increasing the system's capacity so it can handle heavy rainfall without causing further sewage overflows.

"It is work we must do to secure the long-term future of our critical infrastructure, and to make sure Baltimore's waterways are as clean as we can make them," said Rudy S. Chow, the city's public works director.

Water-quality advocates said they were generally pleased with the plan, but expressed concern that it does not give regulators enough power to ensure that the city meets its deadlines.

"What happens along the way if we see the city is not performing under the consent decree?" asked Alison Prost, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Others said the agreement does not address the sewage backups that foul thousands of basements across the city each year.

A Baltimore Sun investigation last month found that sewage backups skyrocketed in the years after repairs began under the 2002 agreement.

Crews responded to nearly 5,000 reports of sewage in city basements last year, and the city rarely reimbursed homeowners for damage, according to data provided to The Sun.

"The revised consent decree doesn't say a word about providing financial and cleanup help to the thousands of often lower-income city residents whose homes have been flooded with raw sewage, which is a real environmental justice issue," said Tom Pelton, director of communications for the Washington-based Environmental Integrity Project.

The agreement would require the city to inspect sewer lines and to notify homeowners when problems are discovered on their property — something public works crews began doing in 2014.

The consent decree is subject to a 60-day public comment period before being formally adopted. Comments can be submitted via e-mail at The Environmental Protection Agency and the Maryland Department of the Environment will conduct a public forum on the agreement at 7 p.m. Tuesday at MDE offices at 1800 Washington Blvd. in Baltimore.

David Flores, the Baltimore Harbor waterkeeper with Blue Water Baltimore, urged residents who have experienced sewage backups to attend the forum and press regulators for more information on how they will be addressed.

"They really deserve a response," he said.

Sewage has been a major contributor to the poor health of the Inner Harbor and the Patapsco River for decades. Before the city entered its original consent decree with the state Department of the Environment and the EPA, dozens of outflows routinely released sewage directly into waterways.

While most of the outflows were subsequently closed, two remain open over the Jones Falls. The new agreement requires them to be closed by 2021.

Another key project with a 2021 deadline would eliminate a 10-mile backup of sewage under the city caused by a misaligned pipe leading to the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant.

The agreement could substantially increase the amount of information the city must make public about sewage leaks and efforts to stop them. It requires quarterly progress reports with day-by-day data on rainfall amounts and sewage flow rates, as well as updates on required improvement projects.

The city would be required to file reports each October detailing complaints about sewage leaks and work to address them, and also to host public forums each year on its progress.

City officials would be required to call the Department of the Environment within 24 hours of becoming aware of any overflow and to follow up with a written report within five days.

The city could face fines for missing deadlines in the new agreement, including a $6,000-per-day penalty if it is more than two months late in completing projects to fix sewage leaks and $2,000 per day if it is more than two months late submitting progress updates.

The city would be required to pay $15,000 each time 1 million or more gallons of sewage-contaminated water is released over the Jones Falls, on top of the $1.8 million in fines it paid for leaks over the life of its original agreement with regulators.

There were at least 11 leaks of 1 million gallons or more in 2015, the Environmental Integrity Project reported in December.

While environmental advocates said the fines and deadlines are important, they would rather see enforcement tied to the water quality and health hazards the sewage leaks create.

"We are well past the time for this to end in the city," Prost said.