Aging sewers may cost city $900 million

U.S. officials propose a settlement under the Clean Water Act

Local fees could be tripled

Mayor calls the deal unfair

regulators threaten a lawsuit

February 09, 2002|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

Federal regulators have offered Mayor Martin O'Malley a settlement that would force the city to make substantial repairs to its aging sewer system at a cost of roughly $900 million, a gargantuan undertaking that could translate into a tripling of sewer bills for Baltimore residents.

O'Malley said yesterday he will meet in the next two weeks with federal attorneys in a last-ditch attempt to soften what he calls a "very unjust" settlement offer, which was completed in recent weeks with the city's attorneys, after more than two years of federal investigation and confidential negotiations to resolve numerous violations of the Clean Water Act.

The city's nearly century-old sewers have long been troubled by overflows that have dumped millions of gallons of raw sewage into tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Justice, joined by state environmental regulators, have threatened a lawsuit under the federal Clean Water Act unless the city agrees to fix those problems quickly.

"They would like us to address this right now in the next few years and put a huge sewer charge only on the citizens of Baltimore to pay for it, and that strikes me on the face of it not to be a very fair way to protect a national environmental asset like the Chesapeake Bay," O'Malley said.

O'Malley said that if he agrees to the settlement as offered, "It could mean a tripling of sewer charges on an annual basis. So instead of paying in the neighborhood of $160 a year, it could mean paying three to four times that amount a year."

The average family of four in the city pays a combined water and sewer bill of about $115 a quarter, among the lowest rates on the East Coast, despite several increases since 1996. That overall bill might double - not triple - because the settlement wouldn't affect water rates. It's possible the city would assess a sewer surcharge, separate from the normal sewer rate, to cover the costs of the federal agreement.

Residents of Baltimore County, which shares the cost of maintaining the city's sewer system, also would have to pay more, but it's unclear how much. And residents of Howard County and parts of Anne Arundel County, who use the city's system, would also be affected.

O'Malley left open the possibility that if his discussions with Justice Department attorneys don't go well, he could reject a settlement and invite a lawsuit. But cities rarely choose that route because regulators can seek heavy fines for Clean Water Act violations that can add up to tens of millions of dollars.

Federal and state officials have refused to comment on the negotiations, but the EPA and Justice Department typically use the threat of lawsuits and heavy fines to force cities to fix dilapidated sewer systems that pose environmental and public health hazards. Several other Eastern cities, including Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Toledo and Miami, have faced similar enforcement actions, as the EPA attempts to speed up repairs of the nation's aging sewer pipes.

O'Malley wants the federal government to share the cost, and he will ask federal regulators to give the city many more years to make the required sewer improvements - both measures would sharply reduce the amount Baltimore residents would have to pay in the next few years.

But the outlook for the mayor is gloomy on both fronts. O'Malley met Thursday with members of Maryland's congressional delegation and left with little hope of an immediate federal bailout.

"To try to get federal dollars for this sort of project on the heels of a war and on the heels of a foolish trillion-dollar tax cut is not an easy thing to achieve," he said. "It's interesting that the same federal government that reduces funds available for these sorts of cleanups is forcing us to shoulder the entire cost ourselves. In essence it means that the cost of cleaning up the bay would fall on the poorest jurisdiction in the state."

And federal regulators may not be sympathetic to the city's pleas for more time. The city has spent tens of millions of dollars in recent years to upgrade its aging sewer system, but federal regulators say that after decades of neglect, such repairs are coming far too slowly.

In Baltimore and other cities across the nation, costs of major sewer repairs are so high that only a lawsuit or court-approved consent decree forces action.

"The reality is, without a regulatory mandate or regulatory hammer or a gun to your head, there is nothing to force the rate increases or the capital expenditures that are necessary," Jay G. Sakai, acting chief of the Department of Public Works' Bureau of Water and Wastewater, said in frank testimony Thursday before the city's Planning Commission.

Sakai told the commission that the expected consent decree will require roughly $700 million in repairs and upgrades of sewer pipes throughout the city. Officials indicated in interviews that the decree could require other construction projects that would cost up to $200 million more.

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