Federal environmental regulators granted Baltimore a brief extension this week after a long-delayed project aimed at protecting drinking water at its Lake Ashburton reservoir missed another deadline, though city officials maintained the work is nearing completion.
A similar project at the nearby Druid Lake reservoir remains on track for a separate end-of-year deadline.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ordered Baltimore earlier this year to get massive underground tanks at the city’s Lake Ashburton reservoir into operation by Nov. 30 and imposed a separate, Dec. 30 deadline for the city to achieve “functional use” of underground tanks at the Druid Lake reservoir, in Druid Hill Park.
Department of Public Works spokesperson Tierra Brown said in a statement that work at Ashburton is “slightly behind schedule” as the city is completing final water tests before it brings the new tanks online. “Given the delay is out of an abundance of caution to conduct water quality testing, rather than construction delays, DPW is working with the EPA on a revised schedule,” Brown said.
The agency expects to have the tanks at Ashburton fully operational within the next two weeks, Brown said, adding that the delay at Ashburton has no impact on work at Druid Lake.
In response to a Nov. 29 request for more time on the Ashburton project, the EPA’s mid-Atlantic region allowed an extension, according to correspondence between the two sides shared by an EPA spokesperson. In the correspondence, the EPA said it expects the city will provide daily written updates over the next two weeks until it gets the Ashburton tanks into compliance.
Required under federal regulations for open-air drinking water sources dating back to 2006, the projects to bury tanks at Ashburton and Druid Lake are designed to protect the city’s water supply from contamination sources, such as animal droppings or litter.
While the city is pursuing much-anticipated redevelopments for the areas on top of the storage tanks at both Druid Lake and Ashburton, the EPA order only requires the tanks to be functional — work the city said this spring was nearing completion. A spokesperson for the Department of Public Works said in May that construction of the tanks had been completed at both locations and was undergoing final testing at the time.
Brown said Wednesday that initial water quality tests conducted the week of Nov. 20 showed high chlorine and pH levels that could interfere with other tests. After flushing the system and resampling, follow-up tests on Nov. 26 passed water quality standards, allowing work to move forward. The public works department plans to keep testing the water in the tanks in the coming days, Brown said.
The city has missed numerous federal deadlines to get the massive underground tanks into operation at both Ashburton and Druid Lake, prompting the EPA to institute a mandate in May that the city complete both projects by end-of-year deadlines. A week later, officials with the Department of Public Works appealed to the EPA to reconsider their mandate, though they maintained that the city would nonetheless be able to get the tanks into operation at both sites by the end of the year.
In addition to imposing deadlines on the Ashburton and Druid Lake projects, the EPA’s mandate required that the Department of Public Works begin performing rigorous testing for certain contaminants in the open-air reservoirs — a process that exposed contamination of the parasite cryptosporidium in the water system in late September.
The federal government set regulations in 2006 requiring open-air sources of drinking water to be either covered or treated to protect against contamination, while giving jurisdictions until 2009 to get approval for their compliance plans.
The Department of Public Works reported in May that the total cost of installing the tanks at about $135 million at Druid Lake and about $137 million at Lake Ashburton.
The agency also said at the time that additional work to clear the construction sites and convert the areas into new recreation spaces — including for swimming and kayaking at the remaining portion of Druid Lake — will be complete by early-to-mid 2024. For now, though, the area over the underground tanks remains a dirt-covered construction site, while a large portion of the paved path surrounding the lake is blocked off.
Among its justifications for imposing end-of-year deadlines, the EPA earlier this year laid out a yearslong sequence of delays and missed deadlines in the city’s efforts to comply with federal drinking water regulations. Most recently, Baltimore told the EPA in August 2022 that it could achieve “functional use” of the tanks at Ashburton and Druid Lake by February 2023, a deadline it did not meet.
And as the EPA noted in its order, the city set that revised deadline just weeks before discovering E. coli in West Baltimore’s drinking water system, a contamination scare that public works officials later attributed to a confluence of events including a sinkhole near Lake Ashburton and a broken stormwater drain that led to dangerously low water levels at Druid Lake. Thousands of homes in West Baltimore were left under a boil-water advisory for close to a week in September 2022 in response to the contamination scare.
Three other open-air drinking water sources managed by the city reached compliance with federal standards years ago: The Towson reservoir met federal regulations in 2013, the Montebello reservoir in 2014 and the Guilford reservoir in 2019, according to the EPA order.