Overhaul failing sewer systems, panel says

City, Shore, W. Md. seen as having worst problems

November 28, 2001|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

A multibillion-dollar overhaul is needed of failing municipal sewer systems in Maryland that annually dump millions of gallons of untreated sewage into rivers and streams that feed the Chesapeake Bay, a state task force has concluded.

But the panel, appointed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening after a series of major sewage spills last year in Baltimore and Western Maryland, has yet to calculate the full cost of the work.

The group will hold its first and only scheduled public meeting tonight before making final recommendations late next month.

The meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County's University Center, off Hilltop Circle and Administration Drive in Catonsville.

Last year, more than 75 million gallons of raw sewage were dumped into rivers and streams that flow into the bay. This year, more than 1,200 spills have been reported in Maryland waters, ranging from 30 gallons to 20 million gallons, says the Maryland Department of the Environment.

Experts blame the spills mainly on aging or poorly designed sewer pipes and treatment plants that are worn out or overloaded by population growth.

Task force members said that over the next 20 years utilities will have to replace antiquated systems that mingle rainwater with raw sewage; repair or replace broken pipes and plants; improve sewage treatment technology to reduce bay pollution; and provide sewer service to designated Smart Growth areas.

The cost will run into the billions, though the task force doesn't have an estimate, said task force member Virginia Kearney, deputy director of water management in the state Department of the Environment.

"This is a national problem," said task force chairman Robert Perciasepe, a former assistant administrator at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Kearney said Maryland utilities must make sewage spill prevention their top priority, because raw sewage can make people sick. Most urgently, she said, nine Maryland cities and counties must separate their storm-water pipes from pipes carrying raw sewage. These "combined" sewer systems are especially prone to leak, break or overflow during heavy rains.

The communities with the most urgent problems include Baltimore, Cambridge, Salisbury, Snow Hill, Cumberland, Frostburg, LaVale, Westernport and Allegany County.

The Maryland Department of the Environment and EPA are pressuring Baltimore and the Western Maryland utilities to correct their problems swiftly or face steep fines for violations of the federal Clean Water Act. Kearney said settlement negotiations are continuing.

Perciasepe said the task force would recommend that those utilities get state help to cover the cost of state- or federally mandated improvements.

Utilities will need federal, state and local help to pay the bills, Kearney said.

She said Maryland officials will lobby Congress to let utilities borrow more money from an existing federal and state loan program for sewer upgrades. To help small utilities that have trouble repaying the loans, the state will ask Congress to allow some of the loans to be written off.

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