Watered-down pollution treatment: The Bay begins here: City's plants charged with years of polluting discharges.

December 17, 1997

MILLIONS FOR a hotel, pennies for pollution cleanup. That's the sad perspective of the Baltimore City administration that, after years of warnings and citations, is being sued by U.S. and state agencies for polluting the Chesapeake.

According to the federal court suit, two city water treatment plants have a long record of pollution violations without evidence of correction. Baltimore promised the state to make improvements at the Ashburton water treatment plant in 1992, but the work is still unfinished.

High doses of toxic chlorine, inadequately treated sewage and phosphorus -- a primary target of multistate Chesapeake Bay cleanup programs for more than a decade -- are the pollutants found in the city's discharges into bay tributaries, according the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Maryland Department of the Environment.

Public Works chief George G. Balog reflected the city's defensiveness, saying the two treatment plants had "overall environmental compliance records that every city would be proud of." Another city official blamed alleged violations on sampling errors.

EPA's regional administrator, W. Michael McCabe, said the court action was taken "in the interest of public health" after eights months of discussions failed. He alleged a longtime "pattern of neglect" at the city's Patapsco sewage treatment plant and the Ashburton facility.

While the government suit seeks heavy fines from Baltimore, the primary aim is to force the city to spend the money to make improvements at the aging plants that serve millions of customers in Baltimore and the suburban counties. Baltimore reportedly balked this month at a proposed $3 million solution, claiming it would strain limited municipal resources.

The state is committed to tighter controls on pollution of the bay, including further crackdowns on farm manure and fertilizer runoff. It can do no less than force Maryland's largest city, after years of foot-dragging and poor-mouthing, to comply with the law. This cleanup should be a priority for Baltimore, as well as for the state and nation.

Pub Date: 12/17/97

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