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.
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 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.
Under the prior consent decree, 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").
Amended Consent Decree
On October 6, 2017, an amended Modified Consent Decree was entered by the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland to address the problem. The new document is far more comprehensive and addresses the most serious and complex structural failings within the system. However, the Modified Consent Decree stretches deadlines for final completion of the work to 2030, rates continue to rise, and questions remain about financing and political will. 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.
While the document still lacks definitive milestones linked to improvements in water quality, it does include provisions for greater community and public input on program elements to be developed by the City, and CBF encourages all our affected members to sign up to receive notices on the Baltimore Department of Public Works’ (DPW) Sanitary Sewer Consent Decree Program website. The City has also made improvements in public outreach by posting information on the Consent Decree Program on a dedicated web page. The City also launched two interactive maps of sewage overflows and active water main repairs in January 2019.
The Modified Consent Decree consists of two phases. The first was completed in December 2020, when the city activated its major Headworks Project at the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant. The $430 million fix addresses sewage overflows that frequently dumped wastewater into homes, streets, and surrounding waterways during and after rainstorms.
The DPW estimates the upgrades are expected to eliminate more than 80 percent of the volume of sewage that previously overflowed from the city's aged sewer system.
Other repairs and upgrades will also be made to the collection system around the city. In the second phase, the 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.
DPW administered an Expedited Reimbursement Program for sewage backups caused by wet weather events. The program requires an application from a resident to assess the eligibility of the residents' documented backup. According to the Modified Consent Decree quarterly report, "Since June 2019 only 24 percent of the expedited reimbursement requests for applications have met all the specified requirements for processing."