Sewage Overflows in Baltimore City


In 2002, Baltimore City entered into a legal agreement – called a consent decree – with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the State of Maryland that required the city to significantly upgrade its aging wastewater system to eliminate sanitary sewage overflows by 2016. Under this consent decree, Baltimore City agreed to complete a comprehensive system-wide program to address discharges of raw sewage into area waterways and bring the city into compliance with Clean Water Act.

2016 Proposed Modification

The original consent decree required infrastructure improvements to eliminate all sewage overflows by January 1, 2016 — a deadline that came and went while Baltimore’s major sewage problems persist. In June 2016, Baltimore City Department of Public Works filed a modified consent decree with the court asking for an additional 14 years to complete its work — pushing back the deadline to 2030. Blue Water Baltimore partnered with other NGOs to submit extensive public comments regarding the proposed modifications and expressed our concerns over the protection of public health, progress and transparency, and frequent backups of sewages into residents’ homes. Over 1200 individuals as well as 35 community, environmental, and healthy organizations signed on in support of our public comments.

Our Role

Blue Water Baltimore formally intervened and became a party to the decree modification process in Fall 2016 to press regulators to require: measurable progress from infrastructure projects; a plan to help citizens suffering from sewage backups in their homes; and ongoing water quality monitoring to scientifically assess improvements from implemented projects.

As a formal party to the case, Blue Water Baltimore has been involved in settlement negotiations and has been working hard to ensure that the citizen voice is represented in the decision making process in a robust and long term manner. Thanks to our advocacy, the latest draft of the consent decree is greatly improved and now includes:

  • Increased accountability and transparency – including improved public notification of financial expenditures and linear feet of structural improvement progress as part of regular progress reports and more robust process for public comment on key implementation plans.
  • Pilot project to compensate homeowners for sewage back-ups – a new program to reimburse homeowners affected by basement backups with $2500 aid per homeowner.
  • Prioritization of repair work to alleviate building-backups
  • Water quality monitoring program – requiring the city to post results from existing stream water quality monitoring program including E.coli and Enterococcus bacteria analytical results along with location, date and time of sample.

Unfortunately, while the new proposed modifications also require Baltimore City to monitor for bacteria in city streams it also expressly prohibits the use of that data to inform or modify repair work, even if monitoring suggests that water quality is not getting better.

Blue Water Baltimore’s greatest concern has always been that the consent decree is an enforceable, science-based plan to eliminate sewage overflows and improve water quality, as required by the federal Clean Water Act, not simply a static list of projects. That is why we have asked the court overseeing the consent decree to remove this provision before approving the plan. Requiring water quality monitoring but prohibiting the use of the data collected to confirm the effectiveness of repairs undermines the goal for which we are all striving. The citizens of Baltimore deserve to know that their tax dollars are being well spent on infrastructure repairs that improve water quality in our streams.

Blue Water Baltimore looks forward to continuing to work with city, state and federal agencies to eliminate sewage overflows, protect the public from sewage pollution, and achieve compliance with the Clean Water Act. Updates on the progress of the proposed modifications of the consent decree can be found on our Blog or via updates on our Facebook page.