© 2023 WYPR
WYPR 88.1 FM Baltimore WYPF 88.1 FM Frederick WYPO 106.9 FM Ocean City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Baltimore Paid Almost $200 Million Too Much For Massive Drinking Water Project

Tom Pelton

Last week, Baltimore Mayor Jack Young abruptly announced the retirement of city’s Director of Public Works, Rudy Chow, amid public controversy surrounding steep rate hikes that have more than tripled water and sewer bills.

One of the most expensive infrastructure projects that Chow launched was right here, in Baltimore’s Hanlon Park. Hundreds of trees have been cut down and the grass torn up into a mud and gravel landscape rumbling with bulldozers.

“This was the most wooded areas of the Ashburton community in Northwest Baltimore,” said Mark Reutter a reporter for the news website Baltimore Brew who has been writing about the project. “This park had 198 mostly old-growth trees, all of which have been removed to place these tanks.”

The tanks he’s referring to are massive underground drinking water holding tanks that the Baltimore Department of Public Works is building both here and beneath part of Druid Lake in Druid Park to replace old open drinking water reservoirs and comply with EPA regulations.

But Reutter’s investigationsrevealed that the drinking water projects, under Chow’s leadership, were almost $200 million more expensive than they had to be, and delayed for years.

“Under the original plan, submitted by the Sheila Dixon Administration and approved in 2009 by EPA and the Maryland Department of the Environment, both of these projects were to have been completed last year,” Reutter said. “Currently these projects will not be completed until the very end of 2022 or 2023.”

According to Reutter’s research, Baltimore had a cheaper and simpler option to comply with 2006 EPA drinking water regulations through additional treatment of its water instead of building large new underground water storage tanks. Those EPA regulations were designed to prevent a parasite called cryptosporidium from getting into open drinking water reservoirs from the waste of geese, a problem that caused a disease outbreak in Milwaukee in 1993.

Maryland health authorities said they have no records of anybody in Baltimore ever being sickened by this parasite in city tap water. EPA and state environmental officials gave Baltimore permission to instead use a more affordable ultra-violet radiation treatment system to safeguard against any possible contamination. That option could have cost about $90 million, according to the initial estimates – instead of the almost $300 million for the huge underground water holding tanks that public works director Chow preferred.

Jeffrey Raymond, a spokesman for the Baltimore Department of Public Works, defended Chow’s decision to launch a more expensive tank project as a way to make better long-term, permanent safety improvements to the city’s water system.  The city's most recent estimate for the cost of the underground tanks at Hanlon Park and Druid Park is $272 million.

“The idea is to have an ultimate solution, not a partial solution,” Raymond said. “These tanks will be the ultimate solution. The water will be secure, stored away from not just environmental hazards but – God forbid – somebody trying to be nefarious and try to introduce something into the water system.”

But the logic of that – when the quality of the city’s drinking water has never been a problem -- is lost on some local residents like Michelle Simpson, who lives near Hanlon Park. If the city had an extra $200 million laying around, Simpson said she’d rather the money be spent on something more useful – like improving the city’s schools instead of cutting down trees and ripping up neighborhood parks.

“No, it wasn’t necessary,” Simpson said, looking over her neighborhood park stripped of trees. “They’re always doing something that costs a lot. It don’t make no sense, and then they’re crying that we don’t have any money. Then, the first thing they do when they run out of money?  They attack the schools and merge them and cram all the kids into one school. And then they wonder why people are dropping out of school.” 

Audio will be posted by the end of the day on Wednesday. 

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.