City of Portland gets one of its dirtiest little secrets out of the sewer and into the spotlight

Sean Mahoney | @SeanCLF

East End Beach. Photo credit: bvohra, flickr

Last night, the Portland City Council took a big step forward in addressing one of the city’s dirtiest little secrets – the discharge of literally hundreds of millions of gallons of untreated sewage and stormwater into Casco Bay every year.

This discharge is a result of stormwater overwhelming the city’s sewer system. In order to relieve that pressure, the city had a system of combined sewer overflows, or CSOs, that would bypass the normal treatment facility in the East End and discharge sewage and stormwater directly into Casco Bay. That toxic brew has closed shellfish harvesting areas in Casco Bay and kept the East End beach closed on many a day.

Since 1993, the city has been obligated by an administrative consent agreement with the Department of Environmental Protection to remove the CSOs, but for many years has dragged its feet. However, in recent years, with a mix of state and federal funding, the city has made significant progress, and has changed the focus from removing the CSOs to providing greater storage for the first flush of the stormwater/sewage brew so that it can be treated after the storm event and capacity opens back up at the East End treatment facility.

To achieve that goal will be expensive – current estimates are that the remaining work on CSOs will exceed $125 million and other related work could bring the price tag up to $170 million. City staff had recommended that work be spread out over 25 years; however, after testimony by CLF and others, including the Casco Baykeeper and Friends of Casco Bay, City Council rejected that notion and adopted the 15-year schedule that CLF had recommended. And that is a good result for the health of Casco Bay.

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