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Baltimore Sewage Consent Decree Fixes Some Problems, but Shortchanges Flooded Homeowners

Tom Pelton

On January 1, 2016, Baltimore missed a deadline from the U.S. Department of Justice to halt its chronic and illegal releases of raw sewage into the Inner Harbor and Chesapeake Bay.

After negotiating with federal officials and the Maryland Department of the Environment, city officials last week released a revised consent decree that would give Baltimore another 14 years to fix the problem. 

Repairing and replacing all of the city’s leaky sewer pipes will eventually cost local ratepayers a total of $2 billion.

Speaking at a construction site, Jeffrey Raymond, chief of communications for the Baltimore Department of Public Works, said the city plans to stop the vast majority of sewage overflows within three years. The city will spend $430 million removing a sewer line obstruction at the entrance to the Back River Wastewater Treatment plant that has been causing a 10-mile sewage backup under the city, Raymond said. 

The city calls this the “Headworks” project, and it should mean a lot less waste and bacteria pouring into the Jones Falls and Inner Harbor, Raymond said.

“By the end of 2020, is when we have to have our headworks project completed, that’ll be phase one,” Raymond said. “And we anticipate that more than 80 percent of the volume of overflows will be taken care of with that.” 

The city’s revised consent decree also creates a new $2 million city fund to compensate the scores of city homeowners whose basements have been flooded with sewage in part because of a city miscalculation in planning for the project. The city closed several sewage overflow outfalls pipes before expanding the overall capacity of the system, which increased pressure during rain storms and triggered backups into many basements, especially in Northwest Baltimore.

“We are putting together a program that will reimburse homeowners in certain situations when sewers back up into properties -- $2,500 per episode, per household,” Raymond said.

Several residents who have experienced sewage floods in their homes complained that the city’s new program is weak, in part because it puts the responsibility on homeowners to pay for cleanup. Afterwards, residents can seek possible reimbursement from the city if they submit their receipts and paperwork, and the city verifies that the backup was the city’s fault (caused by a lack of capacity in the sewer system).

By contrast, in wealthier suburban areas – like Montgomery County – the local utility pays for and immediately executes the cleanup of sewage backups into homes.

Charles Brightful, a retired correctional officer who lives on Elderon Avenue in Northwest Baltimore, said his home suffered $5,000 to $10,000 in damages from a pair of sewage backups, and that the city rejected his claims for compensation.

Brightful said $2,500 per home would be a step in the right direction – but inadequate.

“No, I don’t think that that would be enough,” Brightful said. “It’s something. It’s more than what they had been doing. But it still wouldn’t be enough.”

Angela Haren is Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper with Blue Water Baltimore.  She said that one disturbing change in the recent revision to the consent decree, compared to a draft circulated in June 2016, is that officials inserted new language that requires the continued testing for fecal bacteria in the Inner Harbor and other waterways, but prohibits EPA and MDE from using the results of this testing to determine if the city has completed its sewer repair work.

“There is some language added into the consent decree, which effectively requires EPA and the other regulatory agencies to not look at the data from that (water quality) sampling,” Haren said.  “That’s puzzling to us, because here we are requiring the water quality data, but ignoring it. That would really undermine the goal of getting to clean water.”

The revised sewage consent decree – with this questionable language -- must now be signed by state and federal regulators and accepted by the federal court. 

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.