Modified Consent Decree Provides Plan for Baltimore’s Long-Term Sewer Solutions

Press Release

Baltimore City Department of Public Works (DPW) Director Rudy S. Chow, P.E., called the modified consent decree filed Wednesday, June 1, 2016, “a good-faith agreement by Baltimore City and its regulators to uphold strict environmental standards regarding our sewage collection system.”

The consent decree was lodged in United States District Court for the District of Maryland by the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the Maryland Department of the Environment. The document is subject to a 60-day public comment period. Regulators have scheduled a public information session regarding the consent decree at 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 7, at MDE offices at 1800 Washington Blvd. in Baltimore.

It can be viewed at the Department of Justice website,

The modified consent decree is the result of lengthy discussions between the regulators and the City of Baltimore. It follows a consent decree filed in 2002 to correct unpermitted discharges of wastewater, in violation of the Clean Water Act. That decree expired on Jan. 1, 2016, with more work needing to be done.

The future work is estimated to cost well above $1 billion. Director Chow acknowledged the considerable price tag, adding, “It is work we must do to secure the long-term future of our critical infrastructure, and to make sure Baltimore’s waterways are as clean as we can make them.”

Baltimore’s modified consent decree process has been watched closely by other municipalities. "This modified consent decree represents an innovative approach to solving a problem faced by communities all around the nation,” said Tom Cochran, CEO and Executive Director of The U.S. Conference of Mayors. “This decree acknowledges the enormous financial impact on Baltimore and allows the most critical work to be done first while spreading out the remaining work over an additional period of years. In this way, it addresses the most critical public health and environmental issues first and in a way that is more affordable to its citizens."

The original consent decree was one of the first in the country of its kind – an action aimed at the entire sewer system of a major metropolitan area. As one of the first, it had flaws including an unrealistic end date and did not anticipate how much additional work would be required.

The modified consent decree builds on the extensive work already accomplished, and provides for a system that will capably serve the City and protect the environment for generations to come.

The agreement is composed of two phases, with the priority given to projects providing the greatest environmental benefit in the early years.

Phase I highlights include:

  • Thirty-four individual projects that will complete the necessary fixing and cleaning of our sewer mains. Of these, 11 projects are already completed and another 12 are currently under construction or being awarded. Another 11 of these projects are currently being designed or advertised.
  • The Back River Headworks project, which by itself will reduce more than 80 percent of the sewer overflow volume in Baltimore. The project will correct a 10-mile sewage backup created by the displacement of a huge sewer main leading into the wastewater treatment plant. This problem had not been diagnosed when the original consent decree was entered in 2002.
  • A completion date for the Phase I projects of January 1, 2021.

Phase II highlights include:

  • Increasing the capacity of the system based on the recommendations from the best possible engineering and technology, and modeling based on 20 years of rainfall data.
  • This analysis, and the work that follows, will ensure that the system can handle the real conditions that it will face.
  • The Phase II plan must be approved by MDE and EPA.
  • The final construction deadline for Phase II is 2030.

Other highlights of the consent decree include:

  • Prioritizing preventative maintenance, including a requirement that every major sewer line in the City must be inspected and, where necessary, cleaned at a minimum every 7 years.  
  • “Hot spot” areas that have experienced frequent overflows must be inspected and cleaned more frequently.
  • The City must continue its robust root and grease control programs.
  • The City must expeditiously resolve issues of bacteria pollution in streams caused by Sanitary Discharges of Unknown Origin (SDUOs).
  • The City will also have to submit a plan to MDE and EPA which will detail how these instances of SDUO water pollution will be tracked and resolved.  
  • New public information requirements will make sure the City reports on discharges from sewer overflow structures, and provides public notification of chronic SDUO issues.
  • An annual forum must be held to present the public with information about the progress of the consent decree.  
  • Fast facts on costs:
    • $867.4 million spent on the consent decree as of February 2016.
    • From fiscal year 2017, the projected capital cost for the remainder of Phase I projects is $630.1 million.
    • The projected capital cost related to Phase II projects is $548.4 million.
    • There is an additional $85.1 million projected cost for Program Management, Asset Management, and Flow Monitoring.


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Jeffrey Raymond
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Kurt Kocher
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Jennifer Combs
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The Baltimore City Department of Public Works supports the health, environment, and economy of our City and region by cleaning our neighborhoods and waterways and providing its customers with safe drinking water and sustainable energy practices.