The Environmental Protection Agency this week ramped up pressure on Baltimore to complete two long-delayed projects designed to protect drinking water sources by building storage tanks underground. The federal agency gave the city until the end of the year to finish the required work.

Intervention by the EPA follows years of delays by the city in coming into compliance with federal regulations at its Druid Lake and Lake Ashburton reservoirs. In its order, sent Monday, the EPA set a Nov. 30 deadline to get tanks into operation at Ashburton and a Dec. 30 for the project at Druid Lake.

The federal government set regulations in 2006 requiring open-air sources of drinking water to be either covered or treated to protect against contamination, such as from litter or animal waste, while giving jurisdictions until 2009 to get approval for their compliance plans. In mandating the end-of-year deadline for Baltimore, the EPA pointed to the recent E. coli scare in the city’s drinking water system, which left thousands of homes in West Baltimore under a boil-water advisory for close to a week in September.

In addition to the deadlines, the EPA laid out several reporting and monitoring requirements and gave the city seven days to respond.

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In a statement, Baltimore Department of Public Works spokesperson Blair Adams cited “unforeseen site conditions” and pandemic-induced delays as challenges that have held up the two projects. But the city is “getting closer to completion,” Adams said, and expects to have the water tanks operating by year’s end, “barring unforeseen delays.”

She added that remaining work to clear the construction sites and establish new park amenities in their place will be completed by early or mid-2024.

Under the federal regulations, Baltimore was required to complete projects to protect drinking water at five city-managed reservoirs, three of which came into compliance between 2013 and 2019, according to the order, while Druid Lake and Ashburton remained uncovered and untreated.

While the EPA’s order only requires the underground tanks at the two reservoirs to be functional, the city is pursuing much-anticipated plans to redevelop the areas on top for recreation. At Druid Hill Park, the city plans to convert the covered part of the lake into more green space and to open up the uncovered portion for swimming and kayaking. For now, a large field of dirt covers the Druid Lake project area, where the tanks have been buried but are not yet operational.

The public works department said in a status update last year that it was on pace to complete the undergrounding of the Druid Lake tanks by this fall.

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A rendering created as part of The Druid Lake Vision Plan includes new amenities which compliment recreational water access.
A rendering created as part of The Druid Lake Vision Plan includes new amenities that compliment recreational water access. (Baltimore City Recreation and Parks)

The EPA’s order details a long chain of correspondence involving Baltimore City officials, the federal environmental agency and the Maryland Department of the Environment, in which the city asked for repeated extensions.

The Maryland Department of the Environment in 2009 approved the city’s schedule for completing all five of its reservoir projects, but the state agency did not have authority to sign off on the city’s plans at the time, according to the EPA order. Federal officials settled on deadlines with the city to complete work at Ashburton in 2016 and at Druid Lake in 2018.

But in 2015, the city asked for more time after deciding against covering the reservoirs and instead switching to an underground tank system, a response it attributed to public input. The EPA approved those requests and extended deadlines for the two projects to 2021.

By May 2021, however, the city alerted federal officials that it would not meet the revised deadlines. This triggered a series of exchanges between the two sides in 2021 and 2022, with the city seeking extra time and the EPA asking for more information to justify the delays. City officials cited contractor and supply chain issues from the pandemic as among the reasons it needed more time.

Then, last August, the city reported that it could achieve “functional use of the tanks” at both Ashburton and Druid Lake by this past February. The city again missed those deadlines.

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The EPA order goes on to note that just days after Baltimore City had set those deadlines, the public works department reported contamination of E. coli and other bacteria in the West Baltimore drinking system. Federal officials later attributed September’s E. coli scare to a confluence of events, including a broken stormwater drain that led to dangerously low water levels at Druid Lake and a sinkhole near Lake Ashburton, both of which, the EPA noted, supply water to West Baltimore.

The EPA also laid out numerous reporting and monitoring requirements for the city, including monthly testing for the presence of cryptosporidium and Giardia, animal-borne bacteria.

While efforts to bring the Ashburton and Druid Lake reservoirs into compliance have languished, Baltimore’s other three formerly open reservoirs did so several 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 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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