Advocates demand firm 2020 deadline for overdue projects to end sewage overflows that contaminate Inner Harbor and damage homes
BALTIMORE, Md., December 15, 2015 – The Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) released a report today that reveals that Baltimore continues to intentionally pipe tens of millions of gallons of raw sewage mixed with rain water into the Inner Harbor’s main tributary years after federal authorities ordered the city to stop this pollution.
Two sewage system relief pipes on the Jones Falls dumped about 335 million gallons into the waterway in 119 incidents over the last five years, with about 97 percent of these overflows not reported to the public as required by state law, according to an analysis of city and state records.
That means Baltimore released 15 times more sewage mixed with stormwater into the Inner Harbor and Chesapeake Bay than the 22 million gallons it reported to the public between 2011 and 2015, according to the EIP report, “Stopping the Flood Beneath Baltimore’s Streets.”
The U.S. Justice Department sued Baltimore in 2002 because the city’s leaky, overwhelmed sewer system was routinely and illegally releasing raw human waste into urban streams and the Inner Harbor. Hundreds of city homes have also been flooded with sewage.
To settle the lawsuit, the city signed a consent decree with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) that required the city to repair its sewer system and “eliminate all” overflows and spills by January 1, 2016.
With only about two weeks until that deadline, the city is only about half finished with the repair work required by the consent decree, according to an October report that Baltimore filed with EPA. Sewage overflows and spills in the city remain routine, averaging more than one a day in 2015 – despite the fact that Baltimore had more than 13 years to fix the problem, and collected more than $1 billion to pay for sewer system work by tripling water and sewer bills for city residents.
Baltimore officials are now negotiating with EPA and MDE over a revised consent decree, and asking for a new deadline perhaps a decade in the future. EIP is urging federal and state officials – and the federal courts– for a firm deadline of no later than January 1, 2020 to end the sewage overflows. That would allow Baltimore to attain the long-promoted goal of a “fishable, swimmable” harbor by 2020 and end the flooding of homes with sewage.
“Let’s hope the consent decree negotiations get this cleanup on track,” said Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project and former director of civil enforcement at EPA. “This work needs to get done as quickly as possible, to stop sewage from spilling into the harbor or flooding Baltimore basements.”
Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper David Flores said: “The City, State and EPA should take advantage of the growing enthusiasm and demand for a clean harbor that supports recreation and adopt an ambitious timeline to complete the consent decree. In the interim, the city should provide more public notifications of sewer overflows and water quality advisories to protect those who are already using our urban waterways.”
The report, which is based on city, state and federal records and interviews with experts, contains the following conclusions:
- From July 1, 2012 to July 1, 2015, Baltimore received 413 claims from homeowners about damage to their properties from sewage overflows. The city has paid only about nine percent of these claims, while denying 54 percent and not acting so far on 37 percent, according to public records.
- Because of frequent sewage overflows, levels of fecal bacteria in the Inner Harbor are so high that they are unsafe for kayaking and other limited-contact recreation at least 35 percent of the time, using a conservative estimate.
- The city significantly under-reports to the public the volume of sewage it releases, not only by failing to report discharges from the two remaining relief pipes on the Jones Falls to MDE’s public sewage overflow database but also by often failing to issue press releases for large overflows from these pipes, as required by state law.
- When the city does report sewage overflow incidents to MDE’s public database, 55 percent of the time over the last five years it has entered “zero” as the number of gallons – evidence of an under-estimation of volume.
In addition to a new deadline to fix the problem of no later than 2020, the report makes the following recommendations:
1) Baltimore needs to comply with the terms of the consent decree and close the two sewage outfalls on the Jones Falls that are piping raw waste into the Inner Harbor (SSO #67 and SSO #72).
2) To eliminate these two outfalls, Baltimore needs to fix a sewer line hydraulic restriction problem at the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant. EPA and MDE should list this as a mandatory, deadline project in the revised consent decree.
3) Until the two sewage outfalls (SSO #67 and SSO #72) are closed, EPA and MDE should require Baltimore to report sewage overflows of more than 10,000 gallons from these locations to the public and the news media, as required by law.
4) Downstream from the Jones Falls at the Inner Harbor, Baltimore should post health warning signs when there are major sewage overflow incidents. This idea of warning signs at the harbor is supported by a Johns Hopkins University water quality expert, Edward Bouwer, who reviewed city data, compiled by EIP, on Enterococcus bacteria in the harbor.
5) The Baltimore Department of Public Works should post on its website details about how it is spending money on consent decree projects and how much more it expects to raise water and sewer rates to finish the project.
6) When citizens report large sewage overflows into their homes, Baltimore officials should respond quickly to decontaminate the homes and remove any public health threat.
Media contact: Tom Pelton, Director of Communications, Environmental Integrity Project (443) 510-2574 or firstname.lastname@example.org
The Environmental Integrity Project is a 13-year-old nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that works to hold polluters and governments accountable to protect public health.