Water pollution plan for Baltimore comes under fire

Waterkeeper says state's proposed storm-water permit falls short for cleaning up harbor

  • Michael Schlenoff and Matt Cherigo with the Department of Public Works, use a camera to see down into the storm drain to check for sewage leaks at corner of E. Chase St and N. Milton Ave. in East Baltimore.
Michael Schlenoff and Matt Cherigo with the Department of Public… (Lloyd Fox, 2011 )
June 22, 2012|Tim Wheeler

A new permit proposed by the state for curbing runoff in Baltimore city is coming under fire from a pair of environmental groups, which contend it fails to require big enough reductions in the pollution fouling the harbor.

The Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper and Earthjustice say the storm-water permit proposed for the city last week by the Maryland Department of the Environment is vague and weak. The groups are calling on the state to include specific deadlines and enforceable requirements in the permit, arguing that without those it's little more than "guidance" for the city.

"Unfortunately there is no backbone in this ... permit," Tina Meyers, the harbor waterkeeper, said in an interview.

The permit governs pollution discharged into urban streams and the harbor from the city's storm sewer system, which drains Baltimore's 87-square mile area.

Jay Apperson, an MDE spokesman, called the city's proposed permit "a signficant step forward" in controlling stormwater runoff, a signficant and growing source of pollution of the Chesapeake Bay.He predicted it would cost the city hundreds of milliions of dollars over the next five years to retrofit storm drains, tear up pavement and plant trees and rain gardens.

Apperson noted that the permit requires the city to come up with a plan for controlling runoff from another 20 percent of its paved or built landscape in the next five years - on top of the 20 percent now supposed to be controlled.

"This would be a five-year plan," Apperson wrote.  "So that amounts to a specific deadline."  The permit orderst the development of various plans for controlling pollutants while leaving it up to city officials to figure out how to do that, but Apperson says those plans would be enforceable. 

Meyers, however, called the permit "ambiguous and goal-oriented," less rigorous than one issued earlier to Montgomery County.

The permit doesn't require any set reduction in trash flowing into the harbor, for instance, even though state and federal regulators have declared it "impaired" by trash.  Instead, city officials are directed to seek ways of improving existing trash pickup and recycling and to come up with a public education and outreach campaign for boosting recycling rates and reducing littering.

The permit doesn't go far enough, either, the waterkeeper argues, in requiring the city to track down and eliminate its myriad sewer leaks.  Storm-driven overlows and dry-weather leaks are a major source of the nutrient pollution that causes algae blooms and fish kills in the harbor, as well as of bacteria that make much of the harbor unsafe for swimming or even casual contact at times.

"The permit's actually requiring less than they're doing now," Meyers said. The proposed permit orders the city to sample 150 of its 1,700 storm drain outfalls annually for pollution.  Yet Kimberly Burgess, head of surface water management for the city's Department of Public Works, said city crews now sample 30 outfalls monthly.

Burgess said the permit's requirements will be costly and challenging for the city.  The city needs flexibility to practice "adaptive management," she said, adjusting runoff control efforts as experience shows what's working and what's not.

"This is a big issue," the waterkeeper added, "not just for Baltimore but for the region."  State officials have said they intend to use Baltimore's storm-water permit as a "template" for similar perimts to be issued to Maryland's other large communities over the next several months, she said, so requirements in those other permits are unlikely to be any stronger.

For more on the permit, go here.  A public hearing has been requested, though no date has been set yet.  Meanwhile, comments can be emailed to bclevenger@mde.state.md.us

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