Save the Bay? Not if Baltimore Runs Its Sewers

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Baltimore\’s sewage failures raise questions about environmental deadlines

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Overflowing Baltimore sewers, Photo Credit: Chesapeake Magazine

The day after last week\’s Earth Day, the State\’s Departments of Health and Environment issued a public health advisory because of Baltimore’s discharge of millions of gallons a day of sewage into the Chesapeake Bay. Weeks before, Maryland\’s Department of the Environment ordered the state\’s Environmental Service to seize operational control of Baltimore\’s Back River sewer facility.

The state agency said that catastrophic failures posed \”safety risks to workers at the plants, put public health at risk, degrade ecosystem health, impede the public\’s ability to enjoy and recreate in local waterways, and threaten the state\’s ability to reach its goals under the Chesapeake Bay cleanup agreement.\”[i] The Chesapeake Bay has been contaminated for decades with untreated discharges from Baltimore sewer overflows of bacteria, pathogens, and other harmful pollutants.  These have seriously degraded water quality, killing aquatic life, and threatening public health.

Remarkably, these developments come twenty years almost to the day after Baltimore\’s then-Mayor Martin O\’Malley signed a consent decree with the Federal Environmental Protection Agency. O\’Malley committed the city to correct illegal wastewater discharges of raw sewage from Baltimore\’s wastewater collection system by 2016. Mayor  O\’Malley\’s solemn 2002 commitment was intended to end the years of chronic releases of millions of gallons of raw sewage into city streets and local waterways.

However, that 2016 deadline came and went, with Baltimore failing to comply. The city’s non-compliance was rewarded in October 2017 with a deadline extension of more than a decade.[ii]

Writing in the Baltimore Sun, Taxpayers Protection Alliance President David Williams has charged that Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott has made Baltimore\’s sewer problems significantly worse with ill-considered personnel changes. [iii]  An investigative report by Baltimore Brew senior editor Mark Reutter reveals that Scott’s management choice for the responsible agency embarked on a series of firings and forced dismissals, sidelining senior officials who had more than 130 years combined experience in wastewater management. According to Reutter, they were replaced with unqualified personnel. [iv]

Baltimore\’s failures should be compared with the transformation of other once polluted harbors. Consider Boston, once the target of a 1988 George Bush commercial highlighting Michael Dukakis\’ Boston Harbor failures.[v] That was then. After significant cleanup investments, the EPA now calls the Boston Harbor a \”great American jewel.\” Harbor seals and porpoises are now familiar sights in the water.[vi]  Baltimore and the entire Chesapeake region could have benefited from a comparable resolve.  

This inability of Baltimore to meet deadlines needs to be considered given another environmental deadline now being proposed by Maryland\’s legislature and all eight Democratic candidates for Governor.  Collectively they all agree on requiring Marylanders to entirely rely on renewable energy in just 13 years.[vii]

Effectively, the very political class that has been unable to get Baltimore to upgrade its sewer system to comply with the fifty-year-old Clean Water Act, now also expects to dictate an energy transition in a little more than a decade. This year\’s Maryland Democrats are prepared to make a 100% commitment to renewables when the required technology, such as the necessary commercially available battery storage, does not currently exist for the transition.

Marylanders can expect significant electric price increases because of the 100% renewable mandate. State consumers already pay 35% more for electricity than neighboring West Virginia. However, if rates move to match those of renewable-dependent states such as California, Massachusetts, or New York, residential electric rates could jump by 94%.[viii]

Arguably, a key barrier to Baltimore\’s clean water compliance has been the reluctance of its politicians to raise water and sewer rates.  Although well-established wastewater technologies have long existed, Baltimore\’s leadership decided they were too expensive to deploy because of the political cost connected with raising rates to finance the necessary capital investments.[ix]

An energy transition is already well underway in the country; just as most waterways have become cleaner since the Clean Water Act was passed.  Environmental deadlines without a both carefully considered roadmap and the necessary execution to reach them are likely to fail.


[i] https://bluewaterbaltimore.org/blog/stay-lifted/

[ii] https://publicworks.baltimorecity.gov/sewer-consent-decree/sanitary-sewer-consent-decree-program

[iii] Already troubled, Back River went downhill fast after dismissal of experienced senior staff | Baltimore Brew   

[iv] https://www.baltimoresun.com/opinion/op-ed/bs-ed-op-xxxx-privatize-back-river-20220422-uo72wd4cpbfgnmyo63xmc2mkga-story.html

[v] http://www.livingroomcandidate.org/commercials/1988/harbor

[vi] https://web.archive.org/web/20171016084001/http://www.bostonglobe.com/magazine/2012/05/11/boston-waterfront-has-arrived/WoPbPzHYEOv66Bna9XaryL/story.html ; https://grist.org/regulation/charles-river-boston-waters-of-the-us/

[vii] https://baltimorefishbowl.com/stories/eight-gubernatorial-candidates-pledge-support-for-making-maryland-a-100-renewable-electricity-state-by-2035/

[viii] https://www.chooseenergy.com/electricity-rates-by-state/

[ix] https://www.baltimorebrew.com/2019/07/02/prepare-for-sticker-shock-when-your-next-water-bill-comes-activists-warn/   ; https://sustainablewater.com/baltimore-dpw-cuts-water-service-to-delinquent-accounts/

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