Modified Consent Decree Provides Plan for Long-Term Sewer Solutions

Officials amend agreement with Baltimore in the city's continued effort to curtail sewer overflows and improve water quality.
Modified Consent Decree Provides Plan for Long-Term Sewer Solutions
Baltimore Inner Harbor

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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the Maryland Department of the Environment proposed modification to a 2002 federal consent decree with the City of Baltimore to eliminate overflows from the sanitary sewer system. The proposed modification establishes additional control measures, and provides more transparency to the public, as well as a new timeline to address the SSOs.

Baltimore City Department of Public Works Director Rudy S. Chow calls the modified consent decree filed June 1, “a good-faith agreement by Baltimore City and its regulators to uphold strict environmental standards regarding our sewage collection system.”

The proposed modification calls for a two-phased approach. Phase I, which is currently taking place, requires Baltimore to address a “significant hydraulic restriction” that impacts wastewater flow into the Back River wastewater treatment plant, structural improvements, and a series of pipeline upgrades.  Phase I, which is designed to control most of the overflows, must be completed by January 2021. 

“We anticipate that the work being performed under the initial phase of this agreement will reduce the volume of Baltimore’s current wet weather overflows by about 83 percent within five years,” says EPA Regional Administrator Shawn M. Garvin. “This modification presents the best path forward to eliminating sanitary sewer overflows, while also providing greater transparency.”

The original consent decree required all work to be completed by January 2016, but it became clear to the parties that due to the hydraulic restriction and other factors, additional time and effort were necessary to bring the system into full compliance with Clean Water Act requirements.

Baltimore has already completed many of the actions mandated by the 2002 consent decree including eliminating combined sewers, sewershed evaluations, eliminating most SSO structures, and rehabilitating pumping stations. Baltimore also has paid approximately $1.8 million in stipulated penalties for SSOs that occurred prior to 2016. 

"This mandate for clean water and public accountability means less sewage in basements, streets and waterways and more progress for the Chesapeake Bay," says Maryland Secretary of the Environment Ben Grumbles. "Upgrading the sewers and greening the city will improve public health and environmental quality, and that's good news for all of us."

The proposed modification also requires Baltimore to revise its operation and maintenance plan to include regularly scheduled inspections and cleaning of pipes greater than 8 inches in diameter, and to develop a plan to investigate the cause of wastewater discharges of unknown origins from sewers. Key new provisions require public notification of wastewater discharges through storm sewers and annual public forums for the city to report on the progress achieved under the consent decree.

The modifications will also require the city to be more specific in its emergency response plan to provide notice to the public including location, volumes, water bodies affected and impact on water quality, and procedures for posting signs and limiting access to SSO sites.

After completing Phase I, Baltimore will assess the performance of the completed projects and monitor rainfall and flow in its collections system to develop a Phase II plan, which will be due by December 2022. The modified consent decree requires that Phase II must be completed by December 2030.

Following the completion of Phase II, Baltimore again will monitor its collections system for two additional years with a final report due in July 2033. If during the monitoring period following completion of Phase II the agencies determine that the rehabilitation projects did not sufficiently eliminate the overflows, the agencies can require Baltimore to implement additional corrective measures.

Under the original consent decree, Baltimore was required to eliminate any remaining combined sewers in the collections system, eliminate structures for sanitary sewer overflows, conduct thorough sewershed evaluations, and propose rehabilitation measures for each of the city’s eight sewersheds.

The future work is estimated to cost more than $1 billion. Chow acknowledged the considerable price tag, saying, “It is work we must do to secure the long-term future of our critical infrastructure, and to make sure Baltimore’s waterways are as clean as we can make them.”


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