One hundred-plus years ago, Baltimore upgraded to a "modern" sewage disposal system. Today, that system is crumbling. Century-old pipes leak stormwater into the sewer system and sewage into the stormwater system. Illegal connections mix sewage with stormwater. Overflows occur with alarming frequency after a heavy rain. Even in dry weather, the system leaches sewage into the storm drains.
Most recently, engineers working to bring the system up to current standards determined that a misaligned pipe, the result of an error in the original engineering of the Back River Sewage Treatment Plant, is constricting flow to the facility, causing a 10-mile backup of sewage (fixing this serious problem has been called "the Headworks Project").
If sewage overflows into basements, rivers, and the Harbor are not enough, serious financial concerns accompany the problem. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been paid by Baltimore rate payers since 2002 when the City entered into a consent decree with the Department of Justice. The consent decree agreement required the City to undertake major repairs to the system and gave it 14 years to comply. Unfortunately, and disturbingly, the consent decree deadline expired on December 31, 2015, with the City far from achieving many of its goals to eliminate sewage overflows within city limits. In addition, reducing pollution from sewage overflows is critical if the City is to meet its requirements for implementing the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint.
Amended Consent Decree
On June 2, 2016, an amended Consent Decree was 'lodged' by the Justice Department with the City of Baltimore to address the problem. The new document is far more comprehensive and addresses the most serious and complex structural failings within the system. But the modified consent decree stretches deadlines to 2030, costs continue to rise, and questions remain about financing, milestones, transparency, and political will.
The proposed consent decree consists of two phases. The first includes completing the Headworks Project by 2021. The city contends this fix will eliminate 83 percent of the sewage overflows. Other repairs and upgrades will also be made to the collection system around the city. In the second phase, the Department of Public Works (DPW) will assess the integrity of the upgrades, then make additional repairs as needed to bring the reductions to 99 percent by 2030.
DPW will be required to address sources of sewage from unknown origins like illegal hook-ups to the system, and make regular reports to administrators about overflows and progress. Yet clear interim milestones have yet to be made public and there is no requirement to offer any more public engagement than annual information sessions and quarterly progress reports (though there is a more robust public reporting requirement for overflows).
Recently, in response to questions about revenues generated by rate payers to make the repairs, City officials revealed that over the 14-year term of the first consent decree, nearly $900 million was spent to identify where the problems lie and to engineer solutions. Of that, $350 million was spent, some say ineffectively, on closing 60 of 62 structured "relief valves" to stem recurring overflows.
What It Will Take to Fix the Pipes
Fixing the Headworks back-up by 2021 is estimated to cost the city in excess of $300 million. Completing the repairs by 2030 is expected to cost a total of $2.1 billion. And rates will continue to rise, though not as sharply as they have in the recent past.
Following a 60-day comment period, which ended on August 8th, the consent decree will go before a judge for approval and the work will begin in earnest. It will be the responsibility of the next administration to administer the program efficiently and expeditiously to ensure rate payers get what they are paying for, timelines are met, overflows and health concerns are abated, and we see a significant improvement in water quality.