City sued over alleged pollution U.S., state officials say 2 facilities discharge tainted wastewater

Ashburton, Patapsco plants

Baltimore accused of failing to upgrade, maintain operations

December 16, 1997|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

Breaking off nearly eight months of negotiations, federal and state officials filed suit yesterday seeking potentially tens of millions of dollars in penalties from Baltimore for years of alleged pollution of Gwynns Falls and the Patapsco River with tainted wastewater from two major municipal facilities.

In papers filed in U.S. District Court, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Maryland Department of the Environment charged that since 1992, the city's Ashburton water-filtration plant has routinely discharged too much chlorine and other waste materials into the Gwynns Falls, a tributary of the Patapsco.

The lawsuit also charges that the city's Patapsco sewage plant, which treats 63 million gallons of wastewater daily, has sporadically violated its permit since March 1993 by releasing a variety of pollutants into the lower river, including chlorine, phosphorus and fecal coliform.

Chlorine is used in such plants to disinfect drinking water and sewage but can be toxic to fish and other aquatic life if released into streams and rivers. Phosphorus is one of two nutrients blamed for degrading Chesapeake Bay water quality, and fecal coliform bacteria are linked with raw human and animal waste.

The rare legal action against a municipal government stems from concerns federal and state officials have expressed -- privately until now -- that the city has failed to upgrade and maintain its aging water and wastewater facilities. They contend that the city has failed to make improvements in its Ashburton water plant that were agreed to five years ago.

"We have no choice," W. Michael McCabe, the EPA's mid-Atlantic regional administrator, said yesterday. "This pattern of neglect demonstrates minimal city interest in maintaining strict environmental standards.

"In the interest of public health, we believe strong action is needed to protect the state's water resources."

Dane Bauer, the state's deputy chief of water management, said the suit is "the first in a series" of joint federal and state actions against water polluters in Maryland. He would not discuss any other imminent cases, except to say they would focus on persistent or repeat violators.

Baltimore's public works director, George G. Balog, issued a statement late in the day, saying the city regretted the EPA's "unnecessary decision to use the federal courts to resolve what were essentially minor non-polluting, technical permit exceedances" at the two facilities.

Balog said the city has spent more than $400 million over the past quarter-century "to ensure that none of its water or sewage treatment facilities pollutes the environment," and that the Ashburton and Patapsco facilities "had overall environmental compliance records that every city would be proud of."

Federal and state officials did not specify the amounts of fines they are seeking, but the law permits penalties of up to $25,000 per day for each violation from 1992 through 1996 and up to $27,500 per day for any that occurred this year.

The Ashburton plant, off Druid Park Drive between Reisterstown Road and Liberty Heights Avenue, processes 168 million gallons of drinking water daily for city and suburban residents. It flushes its filters each day and discharges about 4 million gallons of wastewater into a lake that drains into the Gwynns Falls.

According to water monitoring reports, Ashburton's wastewater has contained up to 100 times more chlorine than permitted. It also has contained excessive amounts of suspended solids and alum, which also is used to purify water.

State environmental officials cited the city in 1992 for more than 1,000 permit violations at the Ashburton plant. To remedy those problems, city officials agreed to install equipment that would remove the chlorine from the wastewater, as well as a pipeline to divert the alum sludge.

The city has yet to finish the agreed-upon construction, despite an extension granted by the state, federal officials said.

The Patapsco wastewater plant at Wagners Point, which treats sewage from the city and suburbs, has periodically exceeded its limits. State officials warned the city last year about a "pattern of effluent violations," which they also attribute in part to a lack of upkeep.

Inspections show the city failed to maintain and operate Patapsco properly, according to the EPA, and did not keep adequate records.

Negotiations have been going on since May, after federal and state officials threatened to sue the city unless it agreed to remedy long-standing problems at the two plants. Those closed-door talks apparently broke off within the past two weeks, after municipal officials balked at signing a consent decree that would have committed the city to spending $3 million on penalties, plant improvements and other, unrelated environmental cleanups.

"They [municipal officials] are unwilling to encumber the city's limited resources for an extended period of time as contemplated in the proposal, especially when one of the facilities is in virtual total compliance with its permit," Frank C. Derr, deputy city solicitor, wrote in a Dec. 12 letter to federal and state officials. A copy was obtained by The Sun.

Derr contended that some of the alleged violations stem from sampling errors, and he warned that a lawsuit "appears to promise only a waste of limited government resources which are better used to address real pollution problems."

Pub Date: 12/16/97

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