The path to a cleaner Chesapeake Bay may run through the heart of Baltimore in the form of a 10-foot-wide trench.
Neighborhood leaders from Hampden to East Baltimore are grappling with the potential effects of a $40 million sewer project - one of the most complicated the city has undertaken - that will require a four-mile trench so workers can install a new main starting in spring.
While city officials say the project will reduce the dumping of raw sewage into area waterways, including the bay, homeowners along the route are worried about the potential for weeks, or even months, of disruptions.
Closed streets, they fear, could wipe out already limited parking and force motorists to detour into once-quiet residential areas. Some worry that the underground pipe work will be noisy and might even rupture the plumbing that leads into their basements.
And then there are the rats - which some predict could be stirred out of their hideaways.
"This is, by definition, a nightmare project," said City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, whose district includes much of the affected area. "People are worried."
Letters on the project went out last week to 14,000 residents, surprising some.
Baltimore officials insist that the ditch, which will run from 15 to 30 feet deep, will have only a minimal impact on the residents and nearby traffic. The project will be completed in segments, and the city has agreed to place an inspector on site throughout construction.
"We all understand that nobody wants to have their neighborhood disrupted," said Baltimore Department of Public Works spokesman Kurt L. Kocher. "We certainly have tried our best to minimize the disruptions."
The new sewer main, which will replace a smaller pipe that had undergone several repairs, is part of a much larger work plan crafted by Baltimore and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2002. The agreement required the city to spend $900 million in sewer upgrades over 14 years.
Though complicated and potentially disruptive, major sewer renovations are becoming common in cities across the nation as local governments wrestle with failing, century-old systems that no longer meet federal clean-water standards.
In the past two decades, federal regulators have signed agreements similar to Baltimore's with dozens of major cities, including Boston, Atlanta and Cincinnati, that require local governments to upgrade sewers to prevent them from dumping raw sewage into area waterways.
This summer, Baltimore County approved a settlement with state and federal regulators that will require officials to make more than $800 million in repairs and upgrades to its sewer system.
Baltimore's sewer, built after the Great Fire of 1904, is so old that the patches and temporary fixes applied over the years are no longer holding. Roughly 3,100 miles of pipe serve the city and nearby counties and transport about 240 million gallons of sewage each day.
"It's an old infrastructure that's in need of repair," said William Ball, a professor of environmental engineering at the Johns Hopkins University. "As it starts to fail, you get major leakage from the sewers into the ground and then into the creeks and streams."
Baltimore officials have hired New Jersey contractor Northeast Remsco Construction to lay the new main, a 54-inch-diameter pipe that will run under Clipper Mill Road, Huntingdon Avenue and 27th Street on its way east to Broadway.
Public works officials said they don't know when work will begin but said it will likely be under way in spring. The project is scheduled to be completed in 2007. An old sewer main will continue to be used during the construction.
Michael Schultz, chief of construction management for the department's Bureau of Water and Wastewater, said work will take place block by block so that no one area should be affected for more than two to three weeks.
But neighborhood leaders in Hampden, Remington and other areas say they are skeptical of whether the city took the right approach with planning the new main. Now that the project has been approved, they say their concerns are largely being ignored.
City officials and area residents are at odds, for example, over parking. Extra parking could be needed because the trench will wipe out spots along the street. Residents say the city has not pushed hard enough to secure spots at nearby private surface lots. The city counters that it cannot force private lot owners to provide parking.
Other residents say they are concerned about damage to their homes from the pipe work, which can affect plumbing inside a house. City officials say that type of damage is rare.
On a broader level, some residents say they are disappointed that the project's scope has not been better communicated to those who will be most affected.