Maryland, U.S. reach agreement with Baltimore City to curtail sewer overflows, improve water quality
Agreement sets timelines for completion of estimated $2.5 billion in improvements by 2021, requires improved public notification, sets cleanup reimbursement process for sewage backups
BALTIMORE (Sept. 9, 2017) – The Maryland Department of the Environment and its federal partners have reached an agreement with Baltimore City to greatly reduce the amount of sewage that overflows in the City within less than four years.
The agreement – a proposed modification to the 2002 consent decree between the Department of the Environment, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Justice and the City – would set deadlines for completion of an estimated $2.5 billion in work by the City to improve its sewer system. The agreement notes that modeling shows more than 80 percent of sewage overflow volume will be addressed by projects to be completed by the start of 2021.
The agreement provides for greater public transparency, including improved public notification by the City of sewage overflows and the construction work it is doing to reduce them. It also establishes an expedited reimbursement process for cleanup of sewage backups in homes.
“Our administration was proud to work with our federal partners, Baltimore City, and the environmental community to come together on this critical water quality and public health priority,” said Governor Larry Hogan. “This agreement will protect local waters and the Chesapeake Bay, and support critical water infrastructure, in a way that provides a real, sustainable return on taxpayer investment.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Maryland Department of the Environment announced that the proposed amended consent decree was filed this week in federal court in Baltimore. The proposed amended consent decree requires court approval.
An initial proposed agreement announced last year has been modified following a public comment process. Key modifications to the 2016 proposed agreement include:
- Additional focus on backups of sewage into homes and other buildings, including required reports on their location, identification of areas with recurring backups and the establishment of a cleanup reimbursement program that will help property owners remove sewage and disinfect areas quickly and safely.
- A specific list of projects to be completed by January 2021, including the $430 million “headworks” project to eliminate a flow restriction at the Back River wastewater treatment plant that causes sewage backups into buildings and leads to intentional, “structured” overflows at two locations. For this project, Maryland’s Water Quality Revolving Loan Fund program has allocated low-interest financing of $156 million to Baltimore City and $151.7 million to Baltimore County for the county’s share of the costs.
- Mandatory stream quality monitoring for pollutants, including pathogens, with results posted quarterly.
- Greater transparency, with draft plans, including a revised Emergency Response Plan, posted to the City’s website and made available, 45 days before they are due, to interested parties who will then have 30 days to comment.
- Additional stipulated penalties, including penalties for any failure to develop and implement a plan to address sewage discharges from unknown origins.
“This is a better contract for clean water and environmental justice,” said Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles. “The state will ensure the City keeps its promise, providing tough oversight and real money to support continued progress for all citizens of the Chesapeake Bay region.”
Following the initial proposal, Blue Water Baltimore was approved by court order as a “Plaintiff-Intervenor” in the case to provide valuable input.
The proposed modification establishes a two-phase approach, with an estimated 83 percent of the City’s sewer overflow volume to be eliminated by January 2021 under the first phase. By that date the City would be required to complete the headworks project at the Back River plant and eliminate the structured overflows to the Jones Falls.
Phase I of the project also includes requirements for the City to inspect and, if necessary, clean all sewer lines greater than eight inches in diameter every seven years. The City would also be required to more aggressively identify sewage discharges of unknown origin and repair leaking sewer lines. The Department of the Environment is targeting an additional $58 million in Bay Restoration Fund grants to the City for projects related to the consent decree.
After completing Phase I, Baltimore will monitor rainfall and flow in its collection system to assess the performance of the completed projects and develop a Phase II plan. That plan is due by December 2022 and work under that plan is to be completed by December 2030, followed by two years of monitoring.
Negotiations that led to the successful completion of the modified consent decree, with the deadlines it contains, included discussion of the financial effects on lower-income City residents. The modified consent decree would require an estimated $1.6 billion in City spending, in addition to $977 million already spent to comply with the 2002 agreement.
The modified consent decree provides for greater public transparency by requiring the City to hold annual public forums to report on progress under the consent decree. It also requires the City to revise its Emergency Response Plan. That plan is to include a description of how the City will provide notice to the public of an unpermitted discharge and ensure public notice and reporting to the Department of the Environment of overflows from structured outfalls in accordance with Maryland law.
Sewage overflows typically occur when a large volume of rainwater infiltrates aging sewage lines through breaks and cracks to overwhelm a plant’s ability to treat sewage. Overflows in sanitary sewer systems – systems with separate pipes to carry stormwater and sewage – are illegal.
Baltimore has completed many of the actions required by the original, 2002 consent decree, including: eliminating combined sewers; evaluating sewersheds to propose rehabilitation measures; eliminating most structured overflow outfalls; and rehabilitating pumping stations. The 2002 consent decree required all work to eliminate sewer overflows to be completed by January 2016, but it became clear to the parties that due to the flow restriction at the Back River plant and other factors, additional time and effort were necessary to bring the system into full compliance with Clean Water Act requirements.
Baltimore City paid a $600,000 civil penalty for violations alleged in the 2002 consent decree and has paid about $1.8 million in stipulated penalties for overflows, as prescribed in that consent decree. The modified consent decree also includes stipulated penalties for sewage overflows, along with penalties for failing to provide appropriate public notification of overflows and for failing to meet key dates, including the January 2021 deadline to eliminate the flow restriction at the Back River facility and the two remaining structured overflows.
The modified consent decree is part of a broader effort, using regulation and innovation, to ensure the City makes real progress in cleaning and greening its urban watershed. The Department of the Environment expects the City to reduce polluted stormwater runoff through a range of effective green infrastructure projects. The department has targeted $67 million in low-interest loans for projects designed to meet the requirements of the city’s municipal stormwater permit.
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