Baltimore officials today approved a $1.6 billion update to the city’s existing consent decree, realigning the city’s goals and deadlines for fixing its troubled sewage system. Among the changes: the city plans to finally start paying you back when you have to scramble to clean up putrid overflows into your pipes or basement.
As expected, the Board of Estimates approved the plan at its meeting this morning. The update applies to the consent decree that city leaders negotiated with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Maryland Department of the Environment and signed back in 2002. Under court order, the city was forced to update its century-old sewer lines and other infrastructure to stop the ongoing leaks of millions of gallons of sewage into the Baltimore Harbor. The deadline was 2015, which, in retrospect, was a bit shortsighted.
Upon failing to meet that deadline, the feds offered the city the chance to negotiate an extension, an effort that’s now been more than two years in the making with input from experts and citizens alike. A judge also allowed Blue Water Baltimore to intervene in the negotiations.
One of the two main pieces of the updated agreement is the $681 million upgrade to the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant, which officials say will reduce the miles-long sewage backup that contributes to foul overflows into the Jones Falls every time it rains. The deadline for that project, known as Headworks, is Dec. 31, 2020. The city already approved $430 million in construction spending for that effort in late June.
The other major piece is a $567 million system-wide effort to inspect and replace sewer mains, and ultimately jack up hydraulic capacity in order to meet the waste-related demands of a city with more than 615,000 residents. The deadline for that piece is 13 years away.
The effort will require an additional $359 million to manage, inspect, maintain, clean and monitor the sewer system.
When both are finished, city officials say waste overflows will be essentially a non-issue. Mayor Catherine Pugh said in a statement today that she’s “confident that we will meet the terms of this legal agreement.”
While they’re ambitious and important projects, those two components aren’t really that exciting to most city dwellers, who are watching their sewer rates rise by 27 percent combined between last year, this year and next year to help pay for these repairs. But there is one direct perk of the renegotiated contract for city residents.
According to the Board of Estimates’ agenda for today, the city plans to “initiate a program to address verified cleanup, disinfection and homeowner and tenant costs resulting from capacity-related backups.” Translation: Baltimore will finally starting paying for the costs of everyone’s fecal matter backing up into your home.
Shockingly, such incidents aren’t uncommon. The Baltimore Sun found last year that even though sewage backs up into residents’ homes about 12 times a day on average, the city rarely reimburses renters and owners for the plumbing-related fixes unless it can be linked to a problem that the Department of Public Works knew of, but didn’t address.
The new plan is to address that financial burden for residents. According to DPW, it will start as a three-year pilot program, with the city offering up to $2,500 per backup event. The EPA and MDE will need to review the pilot program after those three years, but DPW says it plans to extend the reimbursement option through 2030.
Additionally, the modified consent decree sets a goal to better “investigate and address sewage backups” by analyzing five years’ worth of data on previous backups, incorporating sewage-backup response into DPW’s existing emergency response plan, heightening reporting on backups and claims from residents and improving public education and outreach.
As with all consent decrees, a federal judge will need to sign off on the agreement for it to take effect. The reimbursement program will begin six months after the court approves it, DPW said.
This story has been updated to reflect the overall projected cost of the modified consent decree’s implementation.
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