Governor backs bill to aid sewer upgrades

System switch to stop raw waste spills is costly

January 31, 2001|By Joel McCord and Dion Thompson | Joel McCord and Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

Gov. Parris N. Glendening added his voice yesterday to the chorus of support for a measure aimed at helping local governments pay to upgrade old and outdated sewer systems.

The problem of spills and overflows from aging sewer systems is "one of the most important environmental issues facing the states of the Chesapeake Bay region," the governor wrote to Del. Ron Guns, chairman of the House Environmental Matters Committee.

Urging the committee to vote for the bill, Glendening said he would meet with the state's congressional delegation to try to get federal money to help pay for the work.

Spokeswoman Raquel Guillory said the governor has not scheduled meetings to talk specifically about sewers, but that he is to go to Washington twice in February.

The measure, which enjoys the sponsorship of House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., as well as the support of Guns and other Environmental Matters Committee members, would create a task force to study the costs of upgrades to failing municipal sewer systems and how to pay for them, including seeking federal money.

It received broad support, and no opposition, at a hearing yesterday before the Environmental Matters Committee.

Sewage spills and overflows are a major problem nationally. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that about 40,000 spills occur a year, most of them in aging and badly designed systems.

In Maryland, more than 60 million gallons of raw sewage poured into Chesapeake Bay tributaries last year, exacerbating problems of high nutrient levels in the waters.

Some spills resulted from leaking pumping stations, but most of it - 55 million gallons of rain-diluted sewage in the North Branch of the Potomac River - came from Cumberland's "combined sewage overflow" system.

The Allegany County seat is one of eight municipalities in the state, including parts of Baltimore City, using the system that mixes storm runoff and raw sewage in the same pipes on the way to treatment plants. In case of a downpour, those systems are allowed to bypass the treatment plants, spilling thousands of gallons of raw sewage.

The bill to create the task force was introduced after small-city mayors throughout the state began complaining loudly about the price of sewer upgrades and the lack of money to pay for them.

The Maryland Association of Counties drafted a letter to Glendening in December asking for help. "Smart Growth cannot succeed if our existing urban areas and neighborhoods lack the proper sewage infrastructure to accommodate growth," said the letter, signed by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, Taylor, other legislative leaders and the heads of state groups.

The state Department of the Environment has ordered the municipalities to clean up their systems. But the costs are estimated as high as $1 billion statewide.

The cost for Frostburg in Allegany County could be as high as $30 million. "It might as well be $1 billion," said Mayor John N. Bambacus. "Our whole budget is $5 million. There's very little discretionary money around here."

Cambridge in Dorchester County has started upgrading its system, which has dumped raw sewage into the harbor that is at the heart of city revitalization plans, but "the money appears to be falling short," said David F. Pritchett, public works director.

The city had expected a $1.2 million grant from MDE, half the cost of the project, but the grant has been cut to about $600,000.

"We've figured out how much we can go into debt," Pritchett said. "And we're much farther in than we wanted to be, and possibly could afford, but we just know we have to do it."

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