March 12, 2010

Bill seeks to speed up sewage discharge fixes

JOHN RICHARDSON

— By

Staff Writer

A central Maine lawmaker wants to give Portland and 34 other communities just four more years to stop discharging untreated municipal sewage into the state's waterways.

Under his legislation, any storm-related sewer overflows after 2012 would cause the communities to lose state revenue-sharing funds. That would cost Portland about $7.6 million annually, for example.

''We need to make this a priority,'' said Sen. John Nutting, D-Leeds, the bill's sponsor.

The bill will be the subject of a public hearing Thursday before the Legislature's Natural Resources Committee.

Nutting has been pushing for years to impose a new, aggressive deadline to end municipal sewage discharges. Similar efforts have failed in recent years after state officials and municipal representatives argued that such deadlines are unreasonable given the challenge of retrofitting old urban sewer systems that were built to overflow during rainstorms.

Nutting said he hopes to have more luck this year because of sewer repair funds that are expected to be available as part of the federal economic stimulus package.

''I think if there's ever been a kind of perfect time to say 'Once and for all we're going to end this type of pollution,' the time is now,'' he said.

Portland has applied for federal stimulus funding to help pay for eliminating sewer overflows, and the city is in the midst of a 6-year, $61 million effort to reduce the pollution. The city now plans to eliminate 88 percent of its sewage discharges by 2013, said Portland Public Services Director Michael Bobinsky. But it will need more time to complete a long-term sewer upgrade plan that has been approved by state and federal agencies, he said.

''We're working very diligently toward meeting those milestones,'' Bobinsky said. ''We're making progress.''

And even after the long-term cleanup is declared complete, there will still be occasional sewer overflows in Portland and a handful of other cities that have especially old and complex sewer systems, said Andrew Fisk, director of the Bureau of Land and Water Quality at the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

Fisk said that of the 35 communities now working to reduce or eliminate sewer overflows, about 13 are expected to be working on the effort beyond 2012. The DEP has yet to take a formal position on Nutting's bill, Fisk said, but the agency does believe communities deserve sufficient time.

Maine communities have spent more than $300 million on the efforts so far and are planning another $200 million worth of projects that would eliminate nearly all overflows, he said. Completely eliminating overflows in every community would cost an additional $200 million, Fisk said.

In the past, the Friends of Casco Bay has joined Nutting in criticizing the pace of Portland's cleanup. But the city is now investing the necessary money and has added engineering staff to speed up the efforts, said Cathy Ramsdell, executive director of the nonprofit group.

''We've been trying to work with the city to keep them on task,'' Ramsdell said. ''They've been acting in good faith these last two years. The reality is it costs an inordinate amount of money.''

Nutting's proposed deadline could be too difficult to meet even for communities that have been the most aggressive in reducing sewage discharges, Ramsdell said.

Nutting, however, said the communities are getting special treatment. Deadlines have come and gone for the sewage cleanup, he said, while other polluters are required to clean up their discharges in five years.

''State law now gives these cities an indefinite amount of time to pollute every year,'' he said.

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

jrichardson@pressherald.com

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