Sewage outbreak at Jones-Falls Photo credit Charmcity123/FlickrPhoto of a sewage outbreak in the Jones Falls, August 2015. Credit Charmcity123/Flickr

Baltimore City Sewage Overflow:
Past Time to Fix the Pipes

Sewage overflows continue to pollute waterways and threaten human health; modified Consent Decree issued

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.

Interactive Baltimore City sewage overflow story mapClick here to view CBF's  interactive map , which shows the extent of Baltimore's sewage problems.

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.

For more, read:

CBF Comments on Proposed CD

CBF has submitted comments on the proposed modification to the Consent Decree and continues to meet with the involved agencies and the City in order to further improve it.

View CBF's submitted comments

A consent decree is an agreement or settlement to resolve a dispute between two parties without admission of guilt (in a criminal case) or liability (in a civil case) and most often refers to such a type of settlement in the United States.
- Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia  

Mapping the Extent of the Problem

In December, 2015, the Environmental Integrity Project reported that Baltimore citizens filed 413 complaints for financial damages due to sewage overflows in their homes since 2013. A map (see left) created by the Environmental Integrity Project, through information gathered in original research for its report and obtained through the Public Information Act, shows the extent of these claims from Parkville to Brooklyn, Greektown to Grove Park. Online videos show massive overflows that litter Baltimore streets with human waste and toilet paper. Some say the problem is underreported, keeping citizens in the dark as to how bad the situation really is.

CBF's Position

To expedite progress on the sewer project and provide the public a full and proper accounting and timetable for its completion, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation calls for deadlines for specific action on the issue. The city must be held accountable for progress. Among other steps, the authorities must:

  • Immediately hire a third-party auditor to track progress and expenditures;
  • By January 2017, complete an open public accounting of the finances of the project and of all work finished or scheduled;
  • By 2020, fix the Back River plant's feeder pipe. By that time the city also must stop intentionally releasing sewage into the Jones Falls as a means to relieve pressure;
  • And by 2025, complete all remaining upgrades identified in the consent decree. This date is realistic, and appropriate given the regional plan to clean the Chesapeake Bay requires all jurisdictions to have strategies in place by then to reduce pollution.

From the CBF Blog



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