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Environmentby Mark Reutter10:46 amMay 30, 20130

EPA asked to revise consent decree, lowering city’s costs by $500 million

Baltimore may get “breathing space” until 2019 to complete major sewer improvements. A Brew Exclusive.

Above: Baltimore sewer chief Rudolph Chow confirms talks with EPA to try to extend the consent decree. (Wayne Butler, DPW)

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has broadly agreed in principle to change the terms of a consent decree that will shave $500 million off the cost of upgrading Baltimore’s antiquated and often leaking sewer system, The Brew has learned.

Following months of behind-the-scenes negotiations, Baltimore has also tentatively secured a three-year “breathing space” – from 2016 to 2019 – to complete the improvements required by the decree, Rudolph S. Chow, chief of the bureau of water and wastewater, confirmed in an interview yesterday.

The city, however, still faces about $1 billion worth of upgrades to comply with the Clean Water Act and to stop the overflow of untreated sewage into streams and the harbor, Chow said. (One such sewer overflow took place earlier this week on the Jones Falls near West Cold Spring Lane.)

The costs of the federal mandate – together with planned upgrades to water lines independent of the consent decree – has led the bureau to request a 42% hike in water and sewer rates in three steps on July 1, 2013, July 1, 2014 and July 1, 2015).

Starting with a 15% hike on July 1, the increases will be acted on by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and other city officials following a public hearing before the Board of Estimates on June 26.

Changing the Methodology

In the past, the city has blamed the 2002 consent decree for steadily rising water and sewer bills.

According to Chow, the cost of the consent decree has escalated from the original “ballpark estimate” of $1 billion – the figure still used on the Department of Public Works website – to internal projections of $2 billion.

Alarmed, Chow and Department of Public Works Director Alfred Foxx went to the EPA last year to try to renegotiate the terms of the agreement. The Brew has been pressing the DPW to disclose the results of those negotiations.

Under terms that still need to be formalized in writing and submitted to the U.S. District Court of Maryland for approval, Chow said, the EPA agreed to change the methodology used to determine the adequacy of Baltimore’s new sewer lines. The Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) and U.S. Department of Justice are also involved in the talks.

The original “synthetic storm model” was based on the assumption – unrealistic, Chow argues – that storm surges would be created by uniform heavy rainfall throughout the city’s sewershed. The new “continuous simulation model” will use historic rainfall data to determine the system’s capacity to manage peak flows, he said.

Asked if historic data might not be an accurate predictor of future rainfall due to global warming and other factors, Chow said that the city plans to build an underground storage tank at the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant to accommodate future unexpected storm surges.

The change in methodology allows the city to scale back the “overdesign” of future sewer lines, resulting in a $500 million cost reduction, according to Chow,

What’s more, the EPA has agreed to push back the consent decree deadline from 2016 to a two-phase timeline.

The first phase must now be completed by 2019. “Phase Two will follow,” Chow said, indicating that specific deadlines have not yet been set.

Massive Public Works Project

At issue in these negotiations was the costliest public works project in the city’s history – upgrading a century-plus-old sewer system whose inadequate capacity and line breakages have sent millions of gallons of untreated sewage into local streams, the harbor and, ultimately, Chesapeake Bay for decades.

Faced with stiff fines for repeat violations of the Clean Water Act and Maryland’s pollution discharge permits, then-Mayor Martin O’Malley signed the consent decree in April 2002 to avoid litigation.

Among other things, the agreement required the upgrading of eight pumping stations, hundreds of miles of sewer lines and major improvements to the Back River and Patapsco treatment plants.

So far, the city has spent about $500 million, mostly for the analysis phase and design of the new system.

Many aspects, including the construction of new junction chambers, manholes and pipelines in the Jones Falls, Herring Run, Gwynns Falls and other sewersheds are now coming under construction contracts, Chow said.

After the story ran, we were sent this statement from Jeffrey Raymond, chief of the division of communication and community affairs for the city Department of Public Works:

“We appreciate the time that Baltimore Brew took to meet with Mr. Rudy Chow, head of Baltimore City’s bureau of Water and Wastewater in the Department of Public Works.

“We would like to point out that Region 3 of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) have worked closely with the City to ensure we are doing all that is necessary to continually make progress in our Consent Decree by meeting our milestone performance dates. We take pride in the fact that we have respected and have met the deadlines imposed under the Consent Decree thus far. As pointed out in this news article, much remains to be done to complete improvements to the City’s wastewater conveyance system, including how best to protect the environment and the affordability of those improvements. We are in discussions with EPA, MDE and DOJ about possible modifications to the Consent Decree, but no agreement has been reached. Any proposed modification of the Consent Decree will require approval of the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland following an opportunity for public comment.”

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