Environmentalists press for quicker fix for Portland's $170M sewer problem

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PORTLAND — Two environmental groups are pressing the city to complete projects sooner rather than later that will reduce the raw sewage being discharged into the city’s waterways.

The City Council held a workshop Monday on a plan to address the discharges into Back Cove, the Fore River and Portland Harbor.

A plan to address the remaining Combined Sewer Overflows must be submitted to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection by June 30.

The council is expected to vote on a final abatement plan on June 20.

Staff is recommending the city submit a plan that would take 25 years to implement. But the Conservation Law Foundation and the Friends of Casco Bay are pushing for a 15-year time line.

The city agreed to a consent and enforcement agreement with Maine Board of Environmental Protection in 1991 to eliminate 33 of the city’s 39 CSOs, which discharge raw sewage during significant rain storms.

The consent agreement required the city to complete the project by 2008, but the city has only addressed nine of the CSOs, largely by separating sewer lines from storm-water lines.

But the city’s consultant, John Gall, vice president of Camp Dresser & McKee, said it would cost the city an additional $525 million to address the remaining CSOs through separation alone.

Gall recommended the city create a plan that continues some of the separation work, while relying more heavily on increasing storage and treatment capacity during rain storms, as well as incorporating some green solutions, such as rain gardens and green roofs.

The recommendations, which total about $170 million, also include a new $45 million East End treatment facility and associated pumps, pipes and a new outflow.

Voters in 2007 approved a $61 million bond to finance the current separation project. But it’s unclear how the next phase of the project will be funded.

Also unclear is the time line for implementation. Both the 25-year and 15-year plans would roughly triple the sewer bill of a residential customer, from about $450 a year currently to more than $1,300 a year.

The Conservation Law Foundation pressed the city in a June 3 letter to implement a 15-year plan, noting the city’s CSOs violate the federal Clean Water Act.

Public comment was not taken at Monday’s meeting, but Casco Baykeeper Joe Payne, who represents the Friends of Casco Bay, said afterwards that, while he supports the technical aspects of the project, he “strongly disagrees” with the 25-year plan.

Payne said the city’s reluctance to address the problem over the last 20 years has already resulted in significant cost increases.

Payne said the 1993 abatement plan, which was to be implemented over 15 years, was originally estimated to cost a little more than $100 million. Now, he said the entire project is estimated to cost more than $250,000.

“That’s the cost of dragging their feet,” Payne said. “Just the cost of inflation is going to kill us in the 25-year plan.”

Payne said he would like to see the momentum gained over the last three years continue.

“Over the last three years they have done a marvelous job,” Payne said. “If they kept up that same pace over the next 15 years, we’d be done.”

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @randybillings.

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