Fresh evidence of a Baltimore County sewer cover-up demands attention

Two months ago, I wrote that a sewage spill at Lake Roland posed an important test of incoming Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski’s commitment to the protection of the environment – and to clean government.

I believe an investigation should be conducted to determine if the spill resulted from deliberate wrongdoing by county officials. That belief was strengthened by the recent decision on the development project known as Bluestem Village.

The sanitary sewage overflow (SSO) at manhole 6883 – discovered by the Green Towson Alliance and reported in The Brew – appeared to confirm a 2012 warning by the county’s engineering consultant.

The consultant, RK&K, determined that the old “interceptor” sewer that runs under Lake Roland needed to be supplemented by a relief sewer to accommodate increased sewage volume from the Towson area to avoid more sanitary sewer overflows or SSOs.

The consultant’s recommendation, however, was never followed by the county’s Department of Public Works.

Environmentalists now fear, with good reason, that SSO “blow outs” are likely to become more extensive as the massive development underway in the Towson area is connected to county sewers.

The RK&K report was not made public until 2018, a fact that raises suspicions that county officials buried the RK&K report so that construction could proceed in Towson.

This a serious allegation that should not be ignored by Olszewski, who has repeatedly pledged to protect the environment, or by the County Council, which approved a basic services map that a veteran Administrative Law Judge has deemed untrustworthy.

These issues came into focus when ALJ John Beverungen issued an opinion disapproving Bluestem Village, an apartment-retail complex proposed in the Bare Hills community adjacent to Lake Roland.

The testimony and decision in the case not only highlight the consequences of disregarding RK&K’s recommendation, they suggest that county officials had an improper motive for doing so.

Systemic Problems

Randy Grachek, a civil engineer with experience designing and evaluating large sewer projects, testified before Beverungen on behalf of opponents of the project.

Armed with the RK&K report, Grachek stated that the county sewers that would serve the project already were overcapacity and “the systemic problems identified [with the sewers] do not warrant additional sewage being added to the systemic problem, even if it were just a little bit.”

Engineers with the county DPW periodically review the adequacy of public wastewater facilities. Their calculations are used to create the basic services map, which is then reviewed and approved by the Baltimore County Council.

Areas where public wastewater facilities are not adequate to support additional development are labeled as “deficient.”

The site of the proposed Bluestem Village project was not identified as deficient on the most recent map.

“Sham” Services Map

Judge Beverungen nevertheless disapproved the development plan based on his conclusion that the wastewater facilities were inadequate to support the proposed project. He wrote:

“In this case I am persuaded by Mr. Grachek’s testimony and the findings of the County’s own consultant that the sewer system serving the subject property is woefully inadequate to handle existing demand, much less the additional inputs from recently approved development in the Towson area. As such, I believe the fact that the property is not identified on the basic services map [as deficient] is plainly contradicted by the findings of the County’s consultant.”

Beverungen’s refusal to embrace the position that a Council-approved basic services map is the final word on the adequacy of public sewerage was deemed rare if not unprecedented by local lawyers.

Even if his refusal to do so is overturned on appeal, the county will be left with the unrebutted finding by one of its own that the basic services map is factually inadequate – in other words, a sham

The judge, who retired after the case, was a longtime county employee, beginning his career as an assistant county attorney and spending the last nine years as an administrative law judge. He had an insider’s understanding of the culture within county agencies. Consequently, something else he said in his opinion was striking:

“And it is certainly understandable why the County would be reticent to include a property on one of the basic services maps [as deficient]. The effect of such inclusion is a legislative moratorium, during which the county is expected to undertake the necessary repairs to the deficient infrastructure. Should this state of affairs persist for longer than 18 months, it is likely a court would find the owner’s property had been ‘taken,’ which requires the payment of just compensation under the state and federal constitutions. This is yet another reason why I do not believe the maps are dispositive in any given case.” (Emphasis added.)

“Towson’s Time”

Beverungen, in short, believed that the county had a motive to refrain from identifying properties as deficient even if they were.

That’s quite a commentary on the integrity of county officials. A government employee who doctored a map to allow a development project to proceed could be prosecuted for misconduct in office.

There was another possible motive for not identifying properties as deficient despite the RK&K report. As described in my prior commentary, there was tremendous momentum – and money – behind the “It’s Towson’s Time” vision of former County Executive Kevin Kamenetz.

It would have been a blow to Kamenetz’s ambitions if the soaring development he wanted for Towson were halted because of inadequate piping below the ground.

Prying Free a Report

The county’s attempt to conceal the 2012 RK&K report heightens suspicions that the Kamenetz administration acted improperly by neither building the relief sewer nor identifying the area served by the Lake Roland interceptor sewer as deficient on the basic services map.

It was only through the dogged efforts of a citizens’ task force formed under the auspices of the Green Towson Alliance that the report was even discovered.

The task force learned of the report’s existence during a casual conversation with a DPW employee in June 2016 and formally requested a copy the following month. The task force didn’t receive the report until February 2018, fully 18 months later.

The task force may never have obtained the report but for the intervention of Delegate Dana Stein (D, 11th), who is vice chair of the House Environment and Transportation Committee. Stein asked the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) to assist the task force in getting answers to its questions.

Stonewalling the State

Even MDE, however, met with resistance from the county DPW.

The agency declined the initial invitation to meet with state officials about the task force’s questions in November 2017, explaining to MDE that DPW had already addressed the task force’s concerns. The task force disagreed, and MDE persisted.

State law requires MDE to review and approve the county’s Water Supply and Sewerage Master Plan every three years. As it happens, the county’s plan was up for review in early 2018. It appears to have been a purposeful delay by MDE in approving the plan that finally pressured the county into releasing the RK&K report to the task force in February 2018.

Why did DPW appear so determined to withhold the report from the task force?

It now appears likely that DPW feared that the fate that befell the Bluestem Village project would have befallen other projects had the RK&K report gotten into the hands of community groups.

How many projects were spared from disapproval based on the inadequacy of the county’s sewage system because the 2012 report wasn’t made public in a timely manner?

That’s something we may never know.

A Pattern of Shortcuts

Inaccurate basic services map and a hidden RK&K report are not the only indications that the county had been willing to take “shortcuts” to keep development in Towson on the fast track.

The county entered a consent decree with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and MDE aimed at eliminating the frequent SSOs in the county.

The task force came across evidence that DPW used out-of-date land use and population data and projections for purposes of preparing a report on deficiencies in the sewerage infrastructure and corrective actions required by the consent decree. What’s more, the report was never updated.

County’s Response So Far

Olszewski’s press office issued this statement to The Brew in response to the sewage issues at Lake Roland:

“The County is sensitive to the Lake Roland area and to the environment. The Department of Public Works has worked consistently with the Green Towson Alliance over several years to address concerns in an attempt to resolved issues – providing full disclosure of data and meeting with alliance members, the state representative and the district councilman on several occasions.”

By under-reporting increases in population density and employment, DPW overstated the adequacy of the sewerage infrastructure to manage future needs, according to the task force.

At the same time, DPW apparently used more current, higher projections to justify its construction of the Towson Run Relief Sewer.

That project will increase the sewage capacity for the immediate Towson area only to funnel the waste downstream into the inadequate Lake Roland interceptor pipe.

The end result is predictable – the high likelihood of more SSOs in and around Lake Roland Park as occurred in August at manhole 6883.

(Baltimore City, of course, has its own problems with SSOs, in part because the sewage from the Lake Roland interceptor goes directly into the city’s own antiquated system, which spills untreated waste into the Jones Falls and, hence, to the Inner Harbor during heavy rainstorms.)

Unanswered Questions

It’s been nearly two years since the RK&K report was made public, and DPW still has not explained why it chose not to implement the consultant’s recommendation to build a relief line at Lake Roland.

As recently as October 9, at a meeting with representatives of Green Towson Alliance, DPW director Steven A. Walsh declined to give a direct answer to the question whether his agency concurred with RK&K’s findings.

Olszewski has tasked former state Delegate Stephen W. Lafferty – recently named the county’s chief sustainability officer – with the task of sorting out the issues pertaining to the adequacy of the county’s sewage system.

This can’t be properly done until we find out why RK&K’s findings were disregarded and then concealed for more than five years.

We also need to to know if county employees manipulated the basic service map to favor development, the concern expressed by Judge Beverungen.

Only a thorough investigation will ensure the public that a valid plan to elminate SSOs exists and that the opaque and dubious culture that pervaded the last county administration is gone.

The time to act is now, Johnny O.

[Published as guest commentary by the Baltimore Brew on October 18, 2019 but not posted to my blog until December 18, 2019. The date of posting that appears above was backdated to place all posts in the order in which they were written.]