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What’s Behind Baltimore’s Failure to Comply with Federal Sewage Consent Decree?

On January 1, Baltimore missed a deadline that had been imposed by a federal consent decree to fix its leaky sewer system and stop intentionally dumping millions of gallons of raw sewage into the Jones Falls and Inner Harbor.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Maryland Department of the Environment are now discussing how much of an extension to give to Baltimore, and whether to penalize the city or loosen up the requirements of the cleanup agreement.

This is a subject I discussed last month on this program. Today, I am going to go into more depth about why, exactly, Baltimore missed the deadline – despite being given nearly 14 years and more than a billion dollars to fix the leaky pipes and stop its illegal sewage dumping.

Dana Cooper, chief of Legal and Regulatory Affairs at the Baltimore Department of Public Works, said that  city engineers started off the project in 2002 not really even knowing what was underground or the extent of the decay of  the city’s plumbing.

“One of the reasons we got into this mess is that the system had not been proactively maintained over the long term; it hadn’t even been mapped,” said Cooper.  “We did not have a good sense of the condition of the pipes.  And so you really don’t know what you need to do in each pipe until you know what’s going on in there. So that mapping, that condition assessment, that inspection– that’s what took all of the time.”

The city’s ignorance of the extent of the problems with its own 1,400 mile pipe network included a discovery – after the consent decree was signed -- of a major pipe misalignment at the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant that continues to cause a 10-mile underground sewage backup.

In addition to this issue, bureaucratic squabbling over the scope of the project was another reason why the city completed only about half of the sewer line repair projects mandated by EPA in the 2002 consent decree. 

Baltimore engineers designed a series of pipe upgrades to handle a modest three inches of rain in a 24 hour period. EPA rejected the city’s plans, asking for a system robust enough to handle five inches in 24 hours. That would be the equivalent to the worst storm expected every 10 years, not the two-year storm for which the city was planning.

 “We used that two year design storm,” Cooper said.  “We then waited three years for a response from EPA after we turned in our last one in 2008.  We did not get a response from EPA from 2011 – at which point they said, ‘Go back to the drawing board.’  So that gap – combined with going back to the drawing board – did set us back several years.”

A spokesman for EPA, David Sternberg, denied the suggestion that his agency delayed the project, writing in an email that EPA responded rapidly after the city finished all of its required studies and plans.

“The plan was contingent on eight sewershed studies that were being performed by the city of Baltimore,” Sternberg said.  “Our decision came just seven months after all the sewershed studies were completed.”

Regardless of who was at fault for the decade of delay – EPA or Baltimore – it is clear that this lengthy back-and-forth was unnecessary because the agencies could have communicated more clearly about the requirements for the upgrade at the beginning of the project.

Over the last two years, more than 400 Baltimore homeowners have filed damage complaints with the city because sewage from the city’s overwhelmed system backed up and overflowed into their basements.

Brenda Johnson, a retired city public school teacher, suffered two sewage floods in her home. She is among those frustrated that the city tripled her water and sewer bills, but did not use the money to stop the frequent sewage floods in her own neighborhood.

“I would think they should have already had it fixed, because: A) They had enough time. And B) They should also have enough money if everybody is paying into their water and sewage the way we pay,” Johnson said. “If every household pays like we do, then they should have the money in their coffers.  Since they didn’t do it in the last 10 or 12 years, obviously they need some help, and maybe supervision.”

As officials debate what to do now about Baltimore’s sewage mess, Brenda Johnson’s idea might be the best:  a court-appointed supervisor to make sure the city finishes the job and cleans up its waterways and Inner Harbor.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.