Portland puts sewer work on 15-year plan

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PORTLAND — Environmentalists on Monday successfully convinced the City Council that it has environmental and economic obligations to solve the city’s sewer problems.

The city is under a consent decree to reduce the amount of raw sewage discharged into waterways by 85 percent, from 170 million gallons a year in 1993 to 87 million gallons.

The overflows occur when it rains, because there are still areas in the city where storm water and sewer lines are combined.

When the treatment plant gets overloaded in the rain, the excess is discharged in places like Portland Harbor, Back Cove and the Fore River.

A plan to remedy the problem must be submitted to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection by June 30. It would reduce the number of combined sewer overflows, increase storage, and implement green techniques, like rain gardens, to treat runoff.

On Monday night, councilors narrowly rejected City Hall staff’s desire for a  25-year plan, in favor of a 15-year schedule sought by environmental groups.

Several environmentalists were on hand Monday night wearing stickers that said “15 years.” The Friends of Casco Bay presented the council with a petition signed by 200 Portland residents supporting the 15-year plan, which was also supported by the Conservation Law Foundation.

Baykeeper Joe Payne said the city has done well over the last five years separating sewer and storm-water lines, although the city still accounts for 39 percent of the state’s sewer discharges.

“That’s not an area you want to be first,” he said.

Payne said the project would cost more, both economically and environmentally, over 25 years.

The 15-year project, estimated to cost $170 million, is expected to triple the sewer bill of a residential customer, from about $450 a year to more than $1,300 a year.

Acting City Manager Pat Finnegan said the project would likely be funded through a revenue bond, which would not need voter approval.

The bond would be paid for largely through user fees. But the city is also considering establishing a storm-water utility to help finance the project.

Park Street resident Erno Bonebakker said he would gladly pay an extra few dollars a day to protect Maine’s environmental brand.

“I’m ashamed we’re still dumping raw sewage into Casco Bay,” Bonebakker said. “We’re cheating ourselves of the quality of life we deserve.”

Public Services Director Michael Bobinsky said staff recommended the 25-year approach because it was measured and reasonable. He said a 15-year plan is achievable, but it would require more disruptive construction and more oversight.

But Councilor David Marshall suggested the city pursue the 15-year plan. “Let’s go for it,” he said.

His amendment passed 5-4, with Councilors Dory Waxman, John Coyne, Cheryl Leeman and Edward Suslovic opposed. 

“My concern is making a promise we can’t deliver on,” Suslovic said.

John True, of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, said the city could be subject to fines if it doesn’t achieve the 15-year goal. But the DEP uses discretionary enforcement if the project is held up for good reasons, he said.

The city was not fined when it missed a 2008 deadline.

Randy Billings can be reached at 718-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @randybillings.