Watchdog group seeks to intervene in city’s sewer consent decree

Blue Water Baltimore says citizens need a voice in the process of revising the city's 2002 agreement with EPA.

stormwater Harris Creek looking at Boston St

The Harris Creek outfall, amid the swanky waterfront residences of Boston Street, is a known route for raw sewage into the harbor. On July 30, 2012, the turgid water emitted a strong putrid odor.

Photo by: Fern Shen

Saying Baltimore has repeatedly failed to stop raw sewage from going into local streams and the harbor, an environmental watchdog group filed a motion today to intervene in a 2002 consent decree between the city and federal regulators.

Blue Water Baltimore asked a federal judge to allow it to represent citizens who “have suffered and will continue to suffer adverse impacts from the city’s unlawful sewage discharges.”

The motion follows a report in The Brew that the city Department of Public Works is currently involved in quiet negotiations with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to modify the terms of the 2002 agreement to end water pollution.

EPA agreed in principle to push back completion of costly upgrades to Baltimore’s sewer system from 2016 to 2019 or beyond, according to a top city official.

The watchdog group says it wants to “give citizens a voice in the revision process” before it becomes finalized and public input is restricted to a narrow window of public comment before the court.

“While the city has made some progress, much more remains to be done as raw sewage pollution continues to harm our waterways and public health,” said Halle Van der Gaag, Blue Water’s executive director.

“We believe Blue Water Baltimore’s technical expertise and experience working closely with local communities is critical to effectively addressing this issue,” she added.

City Set to Oppose

A spokesman for the city called today’s motion “premature,” signaling that the city will oppose letting the group intervene as plaintiffs alongside the EPA and Maryland Department of the Environment.

Jeffrey Raymond, chief of communications for DPW, issued this statement to The Brew:

“The Baltimore City Department of Public Works is committed to fulfilling its obligations under the 2002 Consent Decree. We have met every requirement and deadline under this process. A revision of the Consent Decree is not yet before the court, and we consider the intervention referenced today to be premature.”

Trash, as well as sewage sweeps into the harbor from Harris Creek on July 30, 2012. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Trash, as well as sewage, sweeps into the harbor via the Harris Creek outfall. (7/30/12 photo by Fern Shen)

The city, EPA and MDE will have until August 19 to respond to the motion. If any of them object to making the environmental group a party to the case, a hearing would be held in U.S. District Court.

Two years ago, District Court Judge J. Frederick Motz agreed to let Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper (an affiliate of Blue Water Baltimore) and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to intervene in a consent decree involving EPA and the Sparrows Point steel mill.

At the same time, Motz ruled that citizen groups may not sue a polluter if federal or state regulators are already involved in the case. The ruling would appear to preclude environmentalists from directly suing the city for its alleged sewage overflows.

City Says It Complies, but Sewage Still Flows

City officials argue that DPW has followed the guidelines of the 2002 consent decree, which the city entered under the threat of heavy fines by the EPA for violating the Clean Water Act.

So far, most of the work has involved analysis and the design of upgrades to the system. The construction phase – involving hundreds of miles of new city sewer lines and about $1 billion in expenditures – is scheduled to start in earnest later this year.

But even while the city planned the costly upgrades, it failed to adequately address “ongoing and egregious sewage contamination” from the existing stormwater system, Blue Water charged in court papers today.

The group pinpointed a number of places, such as Stony Run in North Baltimore and parts of Canton, where raw sewage routinely flows into public streams or the harbor.

At Stony Run, continuous discharges of raw sewage flow out of a stormwater line under the University Parkway Bridge, according to Tina Meyers, the Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper. “This happens even in dry weather,” she noted.

She said her group has documented similar problems along Jones Falls, Herring Run and Gwynns Falls in parks or recreational areas used by joggers, bicyclists, children and others.

“Unacceptable Public Health Hazard”

“People are walking their dogs along creeks that are carrying raw sewage. Dogs swim in the water. So do kids. This is an unacceptable public health hazard,” she said in an interview.

The discharges (known as “Sewage Discharges of Unknown Origins,” or SDUOs) represent serious violations of the Clean Water Act. So far, the city has not been fined for the spills under the penalty clauses of the consent decree or state water permits.

Between 2010 and 2012, the city reported discharging about seven million gallons of raw sewage into local streams and the harbor. Most came during heavy rainstorms.

Meyers said the actual amount of polluted runoff greatly exceeds that number because the city does not count SDUOs or chronic leaks through the system.

Among other provisions needed under a revamped consent decree, Meyers wants the city to better notify the public of sewage spills and promptly clean up contaminated debris floating in the harbor or left along streambanks.

Rudolph S. Chow, chief of the bureau of water and wastewater, said that the city is redesigning the sewer system to deal with the chronic leaks and breaks, which he blames on the age of the system.

Decree Changes Could Save City $500 Million

He told The Brew that the EPA had tentatively agreed to accept changes in  modeling assumptions to avoid the “overdesign” of future sewer lines and wastewater treatment facilities.

Chow said these and other changes could save the city $500 million.

The city’s negotiations with EPA are part of a national pattern in which the agency – under intense pressure by conservative legislators and the U.S. Conference of Mayors – has agreed to amend its Clean Water agreements to provide cheaper solutions.

In a policy directive issued last January, Nancy Stoner, acting assistant administrator of EPA’s Office of Water, instructed regional offices to work with local governments “to clarify how the financial capability of a community will be considered when developing schedules for municipal projects necessary to meet Clean Water Act obligations.”

She added that “our on-going conversations [with cities] have been very encouraging and have helped identify several implementation issues, as well as more robust ways to present additional community-specific information within a financial capability analysis when considering a community’s ability to achieve the shared goal of clean water.”

A dead turtle floats below the Harris Creek outfall. (7/30/12 photo by Fern Shen)

Amidst the trash at the Harris Creek outfall, a dead turtle. (7/30/12 photo by Fern Shen)

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  • janjamm

    There should be some kind of criminal charge for the city that enforces a fiduciary responsibility to protect vital resources. Without threatening cities, little happens. As long as political forces restrict and put off the enforcement of vital regulations, we’re screwed. Not to mention, the turtles, and other wildlife and, and let’s not forget, humans.

    • Matthew Riesner

      Instead of criminal charges against the city, how about teaching people (adults and children alike) not to litter. I don’t know how many times I see people throw shit on the ground as if they are an animal who don’t live in America…there are places that it is acceptable to litter (India, Italy, Nigeria, etc) but not here.

      Maybe we need a campaign that shames litterbugs plus penalties like community service and fines (that are actually enforced).

      • Raymond Bahr

        It is important to have citizen representation in these negotiations going forward. DPW has demonstrated in the Harris Creek Watershed Project that they are incapable in working with active environmental volunteers and then completely ignore the City Council’s “Task Force on Trash in the Harbor” recommendations. .Blue Water Baltimore and the Water keeper need to break with the DPW and act as the watchdog in behalf of the citizens of Baltimore City,
        Raymond D.Bahr MD Coordinator of the Harris Creek Watershed Project

        • RKennedy

          In his ruling, one would hope Judge Motz would include guidelines on how plaintiffs Waterkeeper and Blue Water Baltimore must practice actual community engagement. Both group have gaps in their outreach — including little to none minority representation among their fulltime staff — and given their Federal grants require effective outreach, perhaps the Judge can make this a reality. Interesting that the suit arrives now. More on the timing soon to arrive.

          R. Kennedy

          • trueheart4life

            Thank you RKennedy! I’ve raised these same concerns directly with Blue Water Baltimore.

          • River Mud

            To summarize your statement , ineffective work is being done by employees of a certain race, so some employees should be fired and replaced by new employees of the “correct” race, because then, the “gaps” would be automatically be bridged due to race-based hiring. By all means, please continue, “Mr. Kennedy.”

        • trueheart4life

          Blue Water Baltimore and the Water Keeper need to disclose how much money they get from Baltimore City annually before they jump into this under the guise they are representing me … I’m NOT buying it!!!

          • River Mud

            I’ve never seen BWB’s budget but I’d expect that the amount of money they receive from the City is pathetically low, given the shared task ahead of both parties.

      • janjamm

        Matthew, if only it were that simple. Read Raymond Bahr’s response below. The greater problem is a failure to maintain the system and major incompetence of the DPW.

        • Matthew Riesner

          We have a long term multi-generational, cultural problem when it comes to garbage disposal. Sure, the DPW has a hand in neglecting the problem and so do similar agencies in other counties. But it doesn’t matter how hard we are on the city regarding their shortcomings; without citizens changing their behavior, we are not going to accomplish anything.
          If the citizens care so little about these waterway that they continue to pollute (it seems to me that almost every citizen in Baltimore, to some degree, is guilty of throwing snack food bags, cigarette butts, and beverage containers on the ground), then let the waterways die and let’s have the city turn it’s focus to another one of their mounting challenges such as attacting businesses to the non-waterway areas or tax reform.

          • John Molino

            Litter is an issue, but in this instance Blue Water Baltimore is concerned with leaking pipes and treatment plant overflows that result in raw sewage spilling into the waterways. Although litter is unsightly and can harm wildlife, the sewage is more harmful, but also probably an easier problem to fix. Stop the leaks and update the storm drain system.

          • Matthew Riesner

            Given that people in the city don’tt care about the quality of the water, as evident by their actions (such as littering), why should the city waste our tax money repairing the lines at a more expediant rate than they already are. Instead of being concerned about a playground for the wealthy (the disneyland like atmosphere of the residential and commercial waterfront where most real Baltimoreans can’t afford to live), we should turn our attention in land and to higher ground.

          • River Mud

            Let’s not forget that the toxic flow of Back River and the Patapsco continue to run downstream into the Bay, poisoning water in more than a dozen counties in Maryland and Virginia where “non-real” citizens like oystermen, commercial fishermen, and crabbers are working 14 hours per day on a workboat to make a living. And that’s assuming that Bmore’s millions of gallons of sewage and millions of pounds of plastic trash suddenly disappear at the mouth of the Bay and don’t get swept out into the ocean, where even more wildlife (and economic activity) can be harmed. It’s not just the “Disneyland” of the harbor. It’s water.

    • Able Baker

      There’s no fiduciary relationship between a government and citizens. I know it sounds nice, but it’s not accurate.

      • janjamm

        I realize that there is no legal way to enforce the relationship. That’s the problem.

  • Able Baker

    As noble as their goal is, accelerating the pace of repairs is probably unrealistic and will be much more costly for the city. The city has to seriously supplement their staff with consultants as it is. I can only imagine what they’ll need to do if they’re going to be held to a shorter timeline.

  • Jim Cline

    What needs to happen is the citizens of the Greater Baltimore Area which are affected by the poor management of the Balto City DPW, which includes or Wastewater (Sewage, etc.) and Drinking Water (Reserviors, etc.), needs to stand up and demand a New Independent WATER AUTHORITY much like in DC and other large metropolitan areas have. Therefore, 100% of the Water Bill / Tax Dollars for just these projects and for hiring the BEST Water Management Professionals to help get us out of the “dark ages” of open pit toilets….which is what we are seeing here. Baltimore City cannot manage or budget it’s other issues, it is time the people of Metro Baltimore come in and take control and SAVE THE BAY and our Drinking Water!!!!
    The adjacent counties to Balto. City need to pressure the them into relinquishing their responsiblities; and quite frankly, the burden of Water Management to a city with much more issues to be addressed. Let the professionals do it. Maybe the Chesapeake Bay Water Authority???

    • trueheart4life

      The Bureau of Water and Waste (BWW) was established as an independent utility fund by Baltimore City Ordinance 941 by the Schaefer administration in 1978. The utility fund by law is self-sustaining and thus all water bill revenue is dedicated to pay for the operations and maintenance of the entire system. Our problem is that the revenue collected is insufficient to sustain our long-neglected infrastructure,.meaning they can raise rates at will, legally, every time they mismanage a project or have a contract cost overrun!!! Passing the cost directly onto the water bill payer sounds reasonable, but it only works when/if the system is well managed and operated and hasn’t been neglected for 100 years.

      • River Mud

        It also only works if the person or people responsible for the cost overrun are held responsible, and their cohorts are shown that serious, predictable overruns are not tolerated.

  • cwals99

    First, the DPW is a shell of an agency made a shambles because of subcontracting to private businesses. Corruption and mismanagement is sky-high because of the dismantling of the public sector. It leaves the public with no consolidated team of engineers and planners on the public payroll who work for modest income and lifelong careers….all giving consistency, accountability, and saving money. An Authority can have just as much as this private contracting as we saw with the Massachusetts Big Dig.

    We need these environmental groups to go after the waste we have in Baltimore with all of the tax breaks and fraud that empties our government coffers so there will be the money to do as much as is needed! We have no public justice system in the city and if these non-profits do not place themselves in that void to protect public money so it can be spent on real public issues, then they will fight a battle with the city that will then have no money to move forward. When these non-profits only fight the city….they are forcing the taxpayers to pay even more. We saw a good example of this kind of activism with the Sparrow’s Point cleanup financing deal.

    We must have Rule of Law….we must stop the privatization of all that is public that Maryland’s neo-liberals are pushing on us. If good people do not run for office against neo-liberal incumbents….and all Maryland’s dems are neo-liberal….we will not see well-run projects or policy not meant to maximize corporate profits!

    • asteroid_B612

      cwals99 — you don’t give any examples of which municipal bureaucracy is a good model for being environmentally responsible and competent in addressing sewage infrastructure issues. I think we can all agree that the sewer-bankrupted Jefferson County, Alabama should be excluded from the list, as should billionaire-filled NYC. What are the names of the model cities?

      With respect to Baltimore DPW, just look at how incompetent they are with billing for water service, something they’ve been doing for 100 years and should have mastered by now. Thirty years ago, the water meter readers were patronage no-show positions, and all bills were estimated — the Sun exposed this fraud, and we now have the present system where only most of the readings are estimated. I guess that’s progress? Half the bills are error-filled, and property owners can rack up millions in unpaid water bills without being turned off.

      If you want to talk about privatization, compare the trash collection services in the Baltimore County with what we are forced to endure here in the City. You rarely here anyone complain about trash collection in the privatized burbs, while it’s commonplace with our government workforce. I won’t say that is the reason that the streets, sidewalks and alleys in Baltimore are such a disaster here, but the City workers clearly show no pride in their work.

    • River Mud

      That’s an interesting perspective, but the fact is that the origination of this particular problem can’t solely be traced to wasteful outsourcing. It can be traced to the City’s failure to aggressively maintain and update the sewer and water infrastructure over the last 50 years. To your point, there are many talented (and untapped, potentially talented) people working for the City, however, does the City help fund their continuing education? Budget and management training? Contract negotiation training? Continued credits to maintain their engineering licenses? I doubt so. Does the City have an employee management protocol to aggressively mentor, penalize, and ultimately fire employees who are working at 35% of their potential (but not committing any true crime)? I doubt so.

      And so the money rolls out to the consultants – hopefully one of the lower bidders – hopefully for real, justified costs. I agree with you that this is a systemic problem.

  • ham_snadwich

    Also, the construction has already started. Hampden, Roland Park and Homeland have utility crews all over the place.

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