Church sues Cambridge to stop sewage spills Episcopal leaders, group say city violates Clean Water Act

June 08, 1998|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

After 24 years of sewage spilling into a city park, streets and homes of Cambridge and the Choptank River, leaders of the local Episcopal church have filed a federal lawsuit seeking to force the city to stop the spills.

Seeking "corrective action to preserve God's creation," the vestry of Christ Episcopal Church has joined forces with a local community group, accusing Cambridge officials of violating the Clean Water Act by allowing sewage spills to continue despite a 1993 pledge to solve the problem.

Residents of about 20 houses in a scenic, low-lying neighborhood overlooking the Choptank, at the corner of Water and Mill streets, say raw sewage backs up there and into their washing machines, bathtubs and basements more than a dozen times a year when high tides send river water shooting into the sewer system.

"The whole thing comes up in manhole covers, in basements, in every available place," said the Rev. Nathaniel Pierce, rector of the church. "It overflows into the city park on the banks of the Choptank River, which means raw sewage ends up in the river. The kids in the yacht club's summer sailing program keep finding 'floatables' in the water."

Pierce said the church vestry, or leadership, hotly debated the issue before voting in April to sue the city, the company that runs the treatment plant and the Environmental Protection Agency.

"There are some members of the congregation who think this is not an appropriate thing for an Episcopal church to be doing," Pierce said. But most of the leaders agreed that "there is an obvious moral issue involved when raw sewage is dumped into the Choptank River," he said.

City officials say the spills are the result of an antiquated system, built in 1910, that links the sewer lines serving homes and businesses to the lines that capture storm water.

"It's happening, and it always has happened," said Robert S. Collison, the city's attorney.

Pierce said about 200 sewage backups have occurred in the past six years. A 1995 city consultants' study found that Cambridge dumps 40 million gallons of storm water and sewage into the Choptank each year.

Residents filed formal complaints in 1972, 1974, 1979, 1984 and Prompted by the 1992 complaint, the city and Maryland Department of the Environment reached a legally enforceable agreement in 1993 to upgrade the sewer system. The first deadline came November, when the city was due to finish upgrading service for the neighborhood near Water and Mill streets.

But the work hasn't begun because last year city leaders decided to scrap the first solution and start over. Under the best-case scenario, Collison said, the neighborhood could get relief from the backups by November 1999.

"The city feels confident that we're in compliance" with the original agreement, Collison said.

Timothy R. Henderson, lawyer for the church and the Cambridge Environmental and Community Development Group, said the new design will stop flooding and backups because of heavy rain but not those caused by high tides. And he said the delays mean the new system won't be finished for about 11 years -- more than 35 years after residents first began complaining about the sewage spills.

"They haven't turned the first shovelful of dirt yet," Henderson said. "From the citizens' standpoint, facing the prospect of these 'floatables' through the year 2009 is unacceptable."

Pub Date: 6/08/98

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