Revised consent decree addresses sewer overflows
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) have announced a modified legal agreement with Baltimore City designed to alleviate chronic sewer system overflows.
The city first entered into
an agreement, known as a consent decree, with EPA and MDE in 2002 as a response to continued overflows of the city’s sewer system, managed partly by the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant on Eastern Avenue.
The decree came about in response to EPA/MDE accusations that the city, which manages the water system used by 1.3 million people in both the city and Baltimore County, was allowing overflow sewage to spill into waterways during wet weather.
Sewage overflow, the result of an aging and overtaxed sewer system, not only pollutes local water- ways but is a health hazard as well. Sewage can contain industrial waste, pathogens and can adversely affect people and animals.
The consent decree originally stipulated a January 2016 deadline. That date proved unrealistic after the discovery of a misplaced pipe causing a 10-mile sewage backup leading into the Back River plant.
A proposed modified consent decree addressed this concern with the addition of the Back River Headworks project, a $430 million undertaking expected to eliminate more than 80 percent of sewage overflows in the area. The project, which broke ground to much fanfare last month, is slated to be completed by 2021.
The consent decree lays out a series of sewer system rehabilitation projects to be completed in two phases.
Phase I, with a deadline of January 2021, includes the Headworks Project and other structural improvements and upgrades. Several projects have already been completed as part of phase I, including eliminating combined sewers, rehabilitating pumping stations and evaluating sewersheds.
Phase I improvements are expected to solve approximately 83 percent of the sewage overflow issues.
Once phase I is completed, the city is tasked with keeping tabs on sewage flow and formulating an appropriate phase II plan, due in December 2022. Phase II is slated to be completed by December 2030, with a final report from the city due on July 31, 2033.
Additional elements of the modified consent decree endeavor, according to an EPA press release, to add additional accountability and transparency to the process.
The city is tasked with investigating “sanitary discharges of unknown origin” (SDUOs), referring to discharges via the storm sewer system, and educating and notifying the public about SDUOs. The city is also required to hold annual public meetings on improvement projects and post quarterly reports on the issue.
Other changes laid out in the revised decree include stream quality monitoring and sub lists of projects to be completed by January 2012 (including the Headworks project at Back River).
With a revised consent decree hammered out, it is up to courts to approve the final agreement. MDE and EPA filed the decree in federal on Sept. 6.
“This modification presents the best path forward to eliminating sanitary sewer overflows in the City of Baltimore,” EPA acting Regional Administrator Cecil Rodrigues stated, adding, “In response to public comments, the proposed modification establishes additional control measures, provides greater public transparency, and addresses basement backups.”
“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 Gov. Larry Hogan. “This agreement will protect local waters and the Chesapeake Bay, and support criti- cal water infrastructure, in a way that provides a real, sustainable return on taxpayer investment.”
MDE Secretary Ben Grumbles also touted the decree, noting, “This is a better contract for clean water and environmental justice.”
He concluded, “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.”
The city has paid $600,000 in fines for the alleged violations that led to the 2002 original consent decree, as well as $1.8 million in penalties for overflows, reported lack of public notifications and failure to meet deadlines.
Gov. Larry Hogan addressed the audience during last month’s groundbreaking of the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant Headworks Project.