Sewer repairs to boost rates

Federal regulators impose fine, accept city's pledge to spend $900 million

April 24, 2002|By Gady A. Epstein and Heather Dewar | Gady A. Epstein and Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

Baltimore officials have agreed to pay a $600,000 fine and make more than $900 million in repairs to the city's aging sewer system over the next 14 years, under a settlement with federal regulators to be approved by the Board of Estimates today.

The settlement, which could lead to a doubling or more of rates for 1.6 million users of the city sewer system over the next 14 years, addresses overflow problems that have polluted the Chesapeake Bay with hundreds of millions of gallons of raw sewage and turned the city's chronically contaminated streams into potential health hazards.

In the past six years, the sewage collection system has had at least 900 overflows totaling an estimated 190 million gallons.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Justice, joined by state environmental regulators, had threatened a lawsuit under the federal Clean Water Act to force the city to fix those problems.

Forced to approve unpopular sewer rate increases, Mayor Martin O'Malley has attacked the regulatory action in populist terms, accusing the federal government of making the state's poorest citizens pay to clean up the bay.

"Unfortunately, our federal government is a lot better at sending lawyers to cities than they are in sending dollars," he said last night. "It's not fair."

Baltimore County residents, who share the cost of maintaining the city's nearly century-old sewer system, also will 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, will also be affected.

After more than two years of investigation and confidential negotiations, regulators may file the Clean Water Act lawsuit and accompanying settlement as soon as today, with the settlement to be enforced as a consent decree by a federal judge.

The agreement gives the city until 2016 to upgrade its sewer system, with the overflow problems to be fixed in the next five years, at a cost that the city estimates to be roughly $250 million.

In the final seven years of the deal, the city must complete a more comprehensive overhaul of its sewer system at an estimated cost of at least $450 million in today's dollars.

The 14-year schedule is two years longer than EPA and Justice Department officials say they initially sought. With his pleas to regulators on behalf of Baltimore's poor, O'Malley won a slight delay for some costly improvements, which will allow the city to raise rates less sharply.

Still, the mayor said he isn't pleased with the final result.

"They allowed us to stretch out an unreasonable burden, an unfair and unreasonable burden, over a longer period of time, and for this I'm grateful?" O'Malley asked.

He said federal regulators had wanted the city to make all the repairs in just five years, a claim that federal officials flatly deny.

The negotiations reflected a tension between federal and local officials that is evident in numerous Clean Water Act cases around the nation: Regulators want leaks and overflows fixed promptly to protect the environment and public health; cities and counties seek to delay repairs as long as possible to soften the financial blow.

O'Malley briefed environmentalists at City Hall yesterday and noted the settlement would benefit the bay and the city's streams. He said the "only other silver lining" was the massive amount of work it will create, which he hopes will translate into jobs for Baltimore residents.

Justice Department spokesman Dana Perino declined to comment on the settlement.

But a senior Justice Department official said Baltimore, like many other American cities, is paying the price for failing to maintain its sewer system.

"Because of an aging collection system, and because of a focus on keeping up with growth and development and inattentiveness to the problem, Baltimore focused on the treatment end of the system and on building new lines," the Justice Department official said. As a result, "you have disrepair, the failure of the system."

The city's sewer system, much of which was built in the early 20th century, carries roughly 250 million gallons of waste and water through about 3,000 miles of pipes, 70 percent of which are more than 50 years old.

This underground flow of waste generally runs downhill to two treatment plants, on the Back and Patapsco rivers.

Leaks, spills and overflow problems throughout this system of pipes has polluted waterways such as the Jones Falls, Gwynns Falls and Herring Run. Some sewer pipes that feed the city's system also take in rainwater, which can lead to overflows during heavy storms that force the diversion of sewage directly into waterways.

Now, after decades of low water and sewer rates, the city's bill is coming due for repairs, regulators say. Even after five rate increases in the past seven years, including this month, the average family of four in the city pays a combined water and sewer bill of about $129 a quarter - lower than most surrounding counties and major East Coast cities.

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