Baltimore public works officials are calling on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to reconsider last week’s mandate to complete two long-delayed projects to protect drinking water sources at Lake Ashburton and Druid Lake, though the city maintains that it can complete the projects by the end of the year, as federal officials ordered.

In a letter sent Monday, the city Department of Public Works asked for a meeting to confer with the EPA about the new deadlines and monitoring requirements the agency imposed for the Ashburton and Druid Lake projects last week, as well as a pause on enforcement of the mandate until the city has had a chance to discuss and review it with federal officials. After city officials required a public records request for the document, the EPA provided a copy of the letter to The Banner.

The appeal comes a week after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency escalated pressure on Baltimore to get into compliance with federal regulations for safe drinking water by installing massive underground tanks for treated water at the Ashburton and Druid Lake reservoirs. The projects are designed to protect the city’s water supply from contamination from sources such as animal droppings or litter and required by regulations for open-air drinking water sources dating to 2006.

The city has missed numerous federal deadlines to get the massive underground tanks into operation at both locations, according to the EPA’s order last week. But in its response to the EPA order, the city said that it has “always been a good partner” to the EPA in its efforts to comply with federal drinking water regulations, provided consistent updates on its progress, and “faithfully provided clean, safe and quality drinking water to its citizens in tandem with these efforts.” Negotiations between the two sides had been ongoing for the past two months, according to the city response.

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“Yet, in the midst of negotiations, the EPA decided to issue a much harsher and more burdensome Administrative Order than the parties had been previously negotiating,” wrote Darnell E. Ingram, an attorney representing the city. While Ingram called the EPA’s action “very disappointing,” he said the city would like to continue work with federal officials to reach an agreement that “is fair and equitable to both sides” and upholds a shared commitment to deliver clean drinking water.

In its order sent last week, the EPA set a Nov. 30 deadline for completion of the Lake Ashburton project and a Dec. 30 deadline for the Druid Lake project. The city stressed in its response Monday that it is “absolutely committed” to completing work on the storage tanks this year, a commitment public works officials laid out to reporters last week as well.

In a statement Tuesday, a spokesperson for the EPA’s Mid-Atlantic region said that the agency would be amenable to changing its unilateral order to a cooperative agreement with the city, as long as the city is willing to meet the new requirements, including by performing more rigorous testing for contamination.

While the city is pursuing much-anticipated redevelopments for the areas on top of the storage tanks at both sites, the EPA order only requires the tanks to be functional — work the city says is nearing completion. Construction of the tanks has been completed at both Ashburton and Druid Lake and going through final testing, public works department spokeswoman Blair Adams said in a statement Tuesday. Most of the pipeline work needed to connect the tanks to the existing open-air reservoirs is also finished at both sites.

The total cost of installing the tanks at Druid Lake is about $135 million, and it’s about $137 million for the project at Lake Ashburton, according to the Department of Public Works.

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In addition to the new deadlines, the federal order includes numerous requirements for reporting and monitoring for bacterial contamination in the two open-air reservoirs.

The city expects 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 — to be complete by early-to-mid 2024.

Among its justifications for imposing end-of-year deadlines, the EPA 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 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.

adam.willis@thebaltimorebanner.com

Adam Willis covers city government for The Banner, including the impacts of the large COVID-19 stimulus package that Baltimore received from the federal government.

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