Baltimore, Capital District Agree to $1 Billion Sewer Fix

WASHINGTON, DC, July 27, 2005 (ENS) - Two joint federal-state settlements worth a total of $1 billion reached Tuesday will protect Capital District and Baltimore waters from contamination by untreated sewage, which contains bacteria, pathogens and other pollutants that degrade water quality, harm aquatic life and threaten public health. Innovative techniques are part of the settlement package, such as inspecting 1,120 miles of sewer mains in five years with closed circuit television.

The U.S. Justice Department, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the Maryland Department of the Environment said the two Clean Water Act settlements with Baltimore County and the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC), are expected to lead to more than $1 billion in sewer system improvements.

Combined with a recent federal settlement against the DC Water and Sewer Authority and a joint federal-state settlement against the city of Baltimore, Tuesday's settlements are designed to prevent continual sewage overflows to the Chesapeake Bay, and the Anacostia, Patapsco, Patuxent, and Potomac Rivers.


The Watergate Apartment Complex (left) and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts beside the Potomac River, Washington, DC. (Photo courtesy NOAA)
"This billion dollar effort reinforces our national strategy of investing in sewer infrastructure and advancing regional partnerships to protect citizens and restore waters of regional and national significance, such as the Anacostia River and Chesapeake Bay," said Benjamin Grumbles, EPA's assistant administrator for water.

Over the past five years, the two federal agencies and the state of Maryland have cooperated to reach a number of settlements with regional sewer authorities to help reduce pollutants from reaching tributaries to the Chesapeake Bay. The agencies count Tuesday's consent decrees as their latest successes.

"Through the combined actions of the federal and state governments, the settlements reached today represent an important step in our efforts to vigorously enforce the Clean Water Act, protect our environment, and keep millions of Maryland and DC residents safe from harmful pollutants," said Kelly Johnson, acting assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division.

"Today's settlements will bring WSSC and Baltimore County into improved compliance with the law, protect our state's waterways, and keep the people who depend on them safe from pollution," said Maryland Department of the Environment Secretary Kendl Philbrick.

"The land in these areas ultimately drains into the Chesapeake Bay, which is the cultural, recreational and economic centerpiece of our state and this region," Philbrick said. "These settlements are an important part of our comprehensive efforts to restore water quality in the Bay and its tributaries."

Baltimore County Settlement

Baltimore County operates a sanitary sewage collection system that utilizes more than 3,000 miles of sewer lines and 110 pumping stations to transport sewage to wastewater treatment plants operated by the city of Baltimore.

The United States and Maryland allege that the county has violated the federal Clean Water Act and equivalent Maryland laws by allowing the repeated overflows of tens of millions of gallons of raw sewage from its collection system into area waterways since at least 1997.


The city of Baltimore has begun to plan for biological nutrient removal facilities at the Patapsco Waste Water Treatment Plant, where nitrogen levels are unacceptably high. (Photo courtesy KCI)
Baltimore County has committed to implement comprehensive investigation, rehabilitation, and maintenance measures throughout its sanitary sewer system that are expected to result in more than $800 million in improvements over the next 14 years.

Specific requirements include elimination of system relief points that allow discharges during heavy rains, completion of specific repair or replacement work in known overflow areas, ensuring that backup power exists for pumping stations, and increased oversight and regulation of grease management to reduce associated sewer backups.

The county will perform a comprehensive proactive inspection of its collection system piping, equipment, and pump stations and correct any deficiencies identified with the goal of resolving those deficiencies before they result in sewage overflows.

Baltimore County also has agreed to pay a $750,000 penalty - to be divided equally between the United States and Maryland - and to perform three supplemental environmental projects valued at $4.5 million.

These projects include funding the design of nutrient removal enhancements at Baltimore City's Patapsco wastewater treatment plant, completing the restoration of several stream areas degraded by urban impacts, and installing a trash collection system to remove and dispose of floating debris.

Washington, DC Settlement

In a separate settlement filed Tuesday, WSSC has agreed to a 14 year, $200 million plan to repair and upgrade its wastewater collection system and improve water quality monitors. This agreement resolves Clean Water Act litigation brought by the United States, Maryland, and a coalition of four environmental groups.

WSSC owns and operates the sanitary sewage collection system that collects wastewater from residents of Montgomery and Prince George's counties in Maryland. WSSC allegedly violated the Clean Water Act by failing to properly operate and maintain its sewage collection system, resulting in sanitary sewage overflows into area streams and backups into buildings.

In today's settlement, WSSC has agreed to perform extensive sewer system evaluations on its 26 sewer basins, covering more than 5,000 miles of sewer pipe to repair or replace any identified problems.

The WSSC will conduct the cleaning and inspecting 1,120 miles of sewer mains in five years via closed circuit television.

"We have worked closely with our partners at the federal, state and local levels to develop a proactive plan that will augment our existing efforts to maintain, identify and repair problem areas within our 5,200-mile sewer system," said WSSC General Manager Andy Brunhart. "This comprehensive plan will enhance our ability to meet the public health needs of our customers and return clean water to our environment."


WSSC General Manager Andy Brunhart embraced the new 12 year sewer settlment decree. (Photo courtesy WSSC)
Brunhart announced the agreement Tuesday at Bladensburg Waterfront Park on the Anacostia River in Prince George's County. Joining him were Congressman Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat, Maryland Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele and representatives from the Anacostia Watershed Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, Audubon Naturalist Society and Friends of Sligo Creek.

"This action plan is a critical part of our effort to ensure the safety of our water supply and to clean up the Anacostia River, the Potomac River, and the Chesapeake Bay," said Van Hollen, who co-chairs the Congressional Chesapeake Bay Watershed Task Force.

The WSSC will developing computer modeling of at least 965 miles of sewer mains within five years to identify portions of the collection system that may not have sufficient capacity to accommodate present or anticipated future flow and plan sewer improvements.

The terms of the agreement also require WSSC to develop revised "emergency response plans" for sanitary sewer overflows and building backups, and improve operations of its pump stations if they experience overflows.

The WSSC is also required to implement a new "fat, oil and grease" permitting program, that will require "food establishments" in Montgomery County and Prince George's County to acquire a permit to discharge fats, oils and grease into the collection system. The WSSC agreed to increase inspection of grease-abatement equipment in more than 5,000 food establishments in both counties within five years.

WSSC will also regularly test the water quality of 24 major tributaries of the Anacostia River, the Potomac River and Rock Creek to determine whether work being performed under the consent decree is having an impact on pollutant levels.

All remedial measures must be completed within 14 years and are estimated to cost $200 million.

Under the terms of the consent decree, WSSC is also required to pay a $1.1 million cash penalty, divided equally between the United States and Maryland, as well as to complete three supplemental environmental projects-valued at $4.4 million-specified in the agreement.

Under the first project, WSSC will acquire conservation easements and/or will purchase undeveloped real estate in the area surrounding the Patuxent Reservoir to reduce pollutant flows into the reservoir. The reservoir is a major drinking water source for Montgomery and Prince George's Counties.

Under the second project, WSSC will further reduce the level of nitrogen that is discharged from its Western Branch Wastewater Treatment Plant, which will benefit the Chesapeake Bay.

The third project mandates that WSSC will assist certain lower income residents of Montgomery and Prince George's County in disconnecting storm water drains that connect to WSSC's collection system on private property and contribute to overflows and backups during storm events.

On November 22, 2004, the Department of Justice, on behalf of the EPA, and the Maryland Department of Environment filed lawsuits against WSSC in federal district court in Baltimore alleging violations of the federal Clean Water Act and equivalent Maryland laws.


Local residents volunteer to stencil identifiers on Anacostia storm drains that may keep trash out of the river system. (Photo courtesy Anacostia Watershed Society)
On January 11, 2005, the Anacostia Watershed Society, the Audubon Naturalist Society, the Friends of Sligo Creek, and the Natural Resources Defense Council intervened in the lawsuit, under the citizen suit provisions of the Clean Water Act. The environmental groups remained parties to the lawsuit and were instrumental in helping to shape the settlement agreement.

"This mutual partnership between plaintiffs, defendants, citizens and WSSC will help protect the health of our local streams, and the people who use and enjoy them. It will also address the issue of dangerous sewer backups in citizens' basements," said Robert Boone, president of the Anacostia Watershed Society.

"This agreement will go a long way to protect the health of area residents," said Melanie Shepherdson, an NRDC attorney. "WSSC agreed to establish a system to monitor pipe breaks and sewer overflows, which will allow them to fix them faster, and notify the public when there's a problem. Public notification and accountability are key."

The settlement documents will be available for public review and comment in approximately two weeks. Both of the proposed consent decrees are subject to a 30 day public comment period and final court approval.