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No Public Accounting for Baltimore's Sewage Problem

The following first appeared in the Baltimore Sun.

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A sewage treatment plant in Baltimore County, MD. Photo by Garth Lenz/iLCP.

Baltimore residents have done their part. For the past 14 years they have paid their water and sewer bills, often with clenched teeth. The city tripled rates during those years. In return, residents expected the city would fix a massive problem in the network of ancient pipes underneath the city. Sewage spills are a regular occurrence in Baltimore after a big rain storm, the result of water penetrating into, and human waste escaping from, 100-year-old pipes. These failings threaten to give the city a third-world reputation—and smell. Residents were willing to pay higher rates so raw sewage would no longer overflow into their basements and streets and into the Inner Harbor.

In 2002, then Mayor Martin O'Malley signed a consent decree with the U.S. Environmental Protection (EPA), committing the city to update the pipe system in the city no later than by January 1 of this year. The city has failed to meet that deadline. Reports indicate Baltimore may be seeking an extension of as much of a decade.

It's maddening enough that the job isn't done. What is equally frustrating is the lack of clear information coming from the city on this issue. It seems astonishing, for instance, that we still don't know definitely how much the city has collected in revenues for the project or how much it has spent to date. Estimates for revenues range all the way from $1 billion to $2 billion. The city apparently also doesn't alert the public about the vast majority of major sewage overflows as required by state and federal law, according to an investigative report by the Environmental Integrity Project.

And perhaps most aggravating is we still don't have any clear idea of the city's plans for finishing the sewer project. The EPA and the city have been negotiating behind closed doors a changed deadline for the work and an amended work plan. But that draft hasn't been made available to the public.

Everyone realizes this project is daunting. It includes fixing 420 miles of sewage pipes. The city also discovered during its repair work a stunning additional problem apparently no one knew about in 2002. A massive feeder pipe to the Back River sewage plant is misaligned, sometimes causing a 10-mile backup.

Still, the city, state, and federal governments owe the public a full and proper accounting and a timetable for finishing this important work. For that reason, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation is calling for deadlines for specific action on this issue. The city must be held accountable for progress. Among other steps, the authorities must:

  • Immediately hire a third-party auditor to track progress and expenditures;
  • By January 2017, complete an open public accounting of the finances of the project and of all work finished or scheduled;
  • By 2020, fix the Back River plant's feeder pipe. By that time the city also must stop intentionally releasing sewage into the Jones Falls as a means to relieve pressure;
  • And by 2025, complete all remaining upgrades identified in the consent decree. This date is realistic, and appropriate given the regional plan to clean the Chesapeake Bay requires all jurisdictions to have strategies in place by then to reduce pollution.

Baltimore residents deserve this much and more. They have a right to be angry that after spending at least $700 million on this problem since the signing of the agreement with EPA in 2002, the city continues to dump hundreds of millions of gallons of sewage into the Inner Harbor. They have a right to a full and transparent accounting of money spent, work accomplished or not, and sewage spills still occurring.

Baltimore's sewage problem is just one of hundreds of pollution problems that must be solved by 2025, the deadline for all states and local governments in the region to meet the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint. Each jurisdiction has its particular challenge. There is no one silver bullet solution to our befouled waters. The blueprint was meant to enlist everyone in a regional clean-up effort, and to hold us all accountable.

Baltimore can't be exempted from that effort.

Sewage in the streets doesn't befit Charm City. Let's get this problem fixed.

—Alison Prost, CBF Maryland Executive Director

Take action right now to tell elected officials and environmental agencies working on this issue that we must see a legally binding agreement that effectively tackles the sewage in our streets without over burdening citizens.

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