Suit filed over sewage

Dept. of Justice, city work out settlement

100 million gallons leaked

Repairs to take 14 years, cost roughly $940 million

April 27, 2002|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

The Department of Justice filed yesterday a long-anticipated federal lawsuit and proposed consent decree asserting that the city has repeatedly violated the Clean Water Act, with hundreds of overflows of raw sewage polluting the city's rivers and streams, and the Chesapeake Bay.

The lawsuit describes a sewer system that has illegally discharged more than 100 million gallons of sewage in the past six years, transforming the city's waterways into repositories of dangerous bacteria that can cause such diseases as gastroenteritis and dysentery.

The proposed settlement, formally approved this week by the city, requires the city to eliminate sewage from those waterways through 14 years of repairs to the sewer system at an estimated cost of $940 million.

"Unfortunately, the areas in and around Baltimore are very high for fecal coliform. Kids play in it, and it's in the city streets on occasion," said Adam Kushner, a senior attorney in the Justice Department's environment division. "This is bad stuff."

The degree of contamination has been well known to environmentalists and watershed activists for years. The decree, which could be approved by a federal judge within about two months, should clean up the water, officials say.

"Hopefully, the water bodies will become fishable and swimmable [again]," Kushner said.

Mayor Martin O'Malley has criticized the legal action, which could mean sewer rates will double or more over the next 14 years. O'Malley says it forces the state's poorest citizens to pay for the cost of cleaning up a national treasure, the bay.

Because the Clean Water Act is such a powerful legal tool for federal regulators, city officials say, they had to settle to avoid millions of dollars in fines. The city agreed to pay a $600,000 fine under the proposed decree.

Leaks, spills and overflow problems throughout the city's nearly century-old system of pipes have polluted the Inner Harbor and numerous waterways, including 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.

Under the proposed decree, in the next five years the city must make at least $250 million in improvements intended to increase the capacity of the sewer system. That includes installing bigger pipes and expanding the Jones Falls pumping station.

The city must also survey its system to identify where pipes need to be upgraded or replaced, then finish repairs by 2016.

Yesterday, the Justice Department, which had been barred from discussing the consent decree while it was being negotiated, detailed publicly how the city's sewer system deteriorated into a threat to the environment and public health.

"The city had devoted very few resources to the regular maintenance of the system," Kushner said. "I think the city will concede it was catch as catch can. They had a few trucks that were capable of doing this [repair] work, and there were recurring hot spots that they checked. ...

"They didn't have close to the resources that are necessary to maintain a system of this nature and age.

"It's sort of like painting the Golden Gate Bridge. You start painting at one end, and when you get to the other end, you start all over again. And that's what they were not doing."

Kushner said the city also failed to ensure that the system had the capacity to handle population growth in areas served by pipes running alongside, and sometimes in, the Jones Falls, Gwynns Falls and Herring Run.

The city had a list of projects to keep up with increased demand, but "there was no commitment as to when those projects were going to be completed," he said.

Under O'Malley and public works Director George L. Winfield, he said, there has been an important "culture shift" toward making the necessary improvements.

Public works officials have said they had planned major repairs. But in public comments before the city's Planning Commission in February, a top public works official acknowledged that the scale of work called for under the proposed consent decree wouldn't get done without the threat of legal action.

Sun staff writer Heather Dewar contributed to this article.

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