Ignoring a mess

May 12, 2002

WHY HAS Baltimore County had so many sewage spills recently?

Good question.

Most of the county's 3,000 miles of pipes are relatively new, dating back to the 1960s. Unlike the cash-strapped city, the county also has money. It spends about $25 million each year to maintain the underground pipe network and 106 pumping stations that convey 100 million gallons of goo each day.

That's why the recent rash of seemingly unconnected spills seems to confound officials there - and in Anne Arundel and several other counties that have had their share of spills as well.

These Maryland jurisdictions are not alone. Sewage spills are a growing, expensive nationwide headache.

Because the pipes are underground, they are easy to ignore. Last month, Baltimore City agreed to a $900 million settlement to repair leaky sewers, and at about the same time, Western Maryland's Allegany County, Cumberland, LaVale and Frostburg signed a less costly consent degree to upgrade their shared sewer system.

From Alabama to Wisconsin, communities are dealing with sewage difficulties.

The problem in old cities, including Baltimore, is a century-old infrastructure.

In suburban localities, more modern pipe networks and pumping stations are groaning under the consequences of rampant suburban growth.

The price tag for needed repairs and expansion is astounding. In Maryland alone, such expenditures are estimated at up to $5 billion, according to a recent study.

Unless action is taken, Marylanders may be threatened with gastroenteritis and dysentery. Already, more than 100 million gallons of untreated sewage end up in streams each year, adding to the pollution of the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac.

Some pressing environmental issues present only problems without easy solutions. Not so with sewers. The price tag may be shockingly high, but what needs to be done is technically feasible. The agenda differs from one jurisdiction to another - in Baltimore City, for example, leaky old pipes must be replaced; in suburban counties, pipe and pumping capacity must be increased. Maintenance should be stepped up everywhere.

All this is doable. The only thing preventing speedy action is a political predilection to procrastinate until an undeniable crisis erupts.

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