Aging Sewers Put A Costly Burden On Communities

Maryland and Virginia Leaders Seek Federal Aid
for Water System Rehab

By Anita Huslin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 8, 2001

To protect the nation's beaches, lakes and streams from raw sewage discharges, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed new regulations that would require municipalities to make up to $100 billion in improvements to eliminate all but the most unavoidable overflows. (emphasis added by WIC)

The rules, which must be approved by the new Bush administration, come as lawmakers in Maryland and Virginia are calling for concerted efforts to find ways of funding the cost of repairing aging sanitary sewer systems.

Each year, heavy rains cause 40,000 overflows of municipal sewage systems nationally, washing polluted runoff into waterways and posing a variety of health hazards, such as gastrointestinal distress and nausea. The sewage also promotes toxic algae and can harm aquatic life.

In Maryland and Virginia last year, millions of gallons of raw sewage spilled into the Potomac and Anacostia rivers and other waterways that flow into the Chesapeake Bay, prompting state officials to crack down on municipalities to fix their leaking systems.

"Our real goal with this rule is to direct tens of billions of dollars to new investment in water infrastructure throughout the country," said EPA Assistant Administrator J. Charles Fox. "Too many beaches in America must be closed due to contamination by raw sewage that threatens public health. Overflowing sewers are the major contributors to this problem."

Maryland House of Delegates Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. (D-Allegany) said Friday that he will call for the creation of a legislative task force to investigate funding the estimated $1 billion cost of upgrading wastewater treatment plants across the state.

Currently, the federal government contributes about 30 percent of the $12 billion annual costs of maintaining and improving the systems nationwide. States pay about 20 percent, and the remainder is shouldered by municipalities.

Local governments, however, are often hard-pressed to afford the remedies for aging and failing sewage plants.

In the Western Maryland community of Cumberland, for example, the storm drains are more than 200 years old. With a lagging city economy, officials are stretching to build a $30 million underground reservoir to hold sewage overflow.

On the Eastern Shore, facing a lawsuit by angry residents, Cambridge, Md., officials last year finally agreed to pay $4 million for a new sewer system to replace one that overflowed into residents' yards when it rained.

"This is the kind of problem that isn't going to get solved overnight," said Taylor, who has been gathering lawmakers and municipal officials to focus attention on the issue. "We've got to put together long-range strategies that would make it work."

The group has asked Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) to use his position as incoming president of the Council of State Governments to convene a summit that would bring state and federal officials together on the problem.

"There's no way that cities in the shape of places like Cumberland could begin to afford these kinds of costs without a massive federal program to help fund them," Taylor said. "I don't know whether we can accomplish specific funding this [session]. I think the first thing you have to do is get everybody at the table and start to fashion a strategy that everyone can live with."