6 Things to Know about Baltimore’s Sewage Struggle

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Environmental Integrity Project's sewage report reveals the Inner Harbor has unhealthy levels of bacteria 35 percent of the time.
Environmental Integrity Project’s sewage report reveals the Inner Harbor has unhealthy levels of bacteria 35 percent of the time.

Man, Baltimore had quite a Tuesday. As we awaited word on the outcome of Officer William Porter’s trial, the non-profit Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) released their report detailing Baltimore’s massive sewage spills. For the past five years, over 335 million gallons of untreated sewage has purposefully been released into the Jones Falls River, and ultimately into the Inner Harbor. Even Jayne Miller from WBAL TV news was on the story.

This report spotlighted the sewage problem that’s affected our entire area for decades. During heavy rains, water seeps into our outdated and ancient sewage pipes and backs up, sometimes overflowing onto streets, and intentionally overflowing into the Jones Falls River. Unfortunately for some residents, sewage floods basements after heavy rains. The six key takeaways are below. And there’s hope: Boston completes their sewage retrofit in 2 weeks.

Backstory: “Clean up your Crap”

Like many other older cities (Boston, DC and Philly) our sewage system wasn’t cutting the mustard. In 2002, the U.S. Justice Department sued Baltimore to force the city to repair and retrofit its outdated and old sewage system – some sewer pipes were laid 100 years ago. Then Mayor O’Malley signed a decree that committed the Baltimore-area to raise the necessary funds (billions), and update the sewage system by 1/1/16. 

Baltimore has three separate systems that funnel water in and out of our homes and businesses.  Municipal-supplied drinking water is piped into buildings from water treatment plants. (By the way, we have good drinking water.)  The stormwater drain system channels untreated rain water from gutters to the Chesapeake Bay. Lastly, the sewage system sends water leaving a building (toilet, showers, and sinks) to sewage waste treatment plants to be treated, and then released back into waterways.

Though separate municipalities, Baltimore County and Baltimore City share water systems. Drinking water is supplied by Baltimore City to 1.8 million Baltimore-area customers. Big chunks of Baltimore County’s sewage, and also stormwater, flow into Baltimore City’s aging infrastructure.

Though gross to think about now, when our sewage system was designed decades ago, open pipes were built to purposefully channel overflowed sewage straight into waterways if the system went above capacity. Before 2002, there were 62 overflow pipes in the Baltimore-area that would release sewage into rivers. Unfortunately there are still two overflow pipes, and that’s what the brouhaha is about. 

What happened in 13 years?

Turns out in 2002, Baltimore City didn’t have a good map of the 1,400 mile sewage system. Officials also didn’t know the big pipe funneling sewage into our big Back River sewage treatment plant was broken and contributing to backups.  After years of haggling and planning with the EPA, Baltimore is actively working on sewage projects, and is about halfway complete. There’s nary a chance the 1/1/16 date will be met.

The consequence is that even though 60 overflow pipes have been closed, each year about 60 million gallons of sewage still overflows into the Jones Falls River from the last two overflow pipes after big rain events. Imagine how much overflowed before 2002? For the record, Baltimore City does not have that data. According to Jeffrey Raymond, Baltimore City’s DPW Chief of Communications, at rain levels of 2.5 inches, enough rain seeps into the sewage pipes via cracks, the system backs up, and can overflow onto streets, and even into people’s basements.

Because Baltimore’s sewage system has the overflow pipes built in, the sewage overflow amounts weren’t announced in sewage spill press releases;  they were included in quarterly reports to the EPA. The result is that few knew that a consistent stream of poopy water was being dumped into the Jones Falls River after heavy rains; about 60 millions gallons or so a year. 

Here’s what you need to know:

1. Sewage overflow does not impact drinking water. Baltimore City’s municipal-supplied water is fed from three reservoirs where rainfall and snow are the sources of water. It’s then treated, and delivered to homes through a separate water pipe system. 

2. Sewage overflow does impact our environment. As our state grapples with tackling stormwater runoff pollution, farm runoff pollution, and waste treatment plant pollution, learning the volume of continued purposeful sewage overflow is infuriating. Increased pollution results in an unhealthy Chesapeake Bay even while so much effort is underway to reduce pollution.

3. Don’t assume any waterway is safe and swimmable. Especially 48 hours after a rainfall, including the Inner Harbor. If it wasn’t bad enough, it’s not just sewage overflow that can be in waterways, but rain runoff washes chemicals, toxins, and grime from our streets and it flows unfiltered into the Inner Harbor. Check Maryland’s Healthy Beaches web site to assess your swimming spot. According to EIP’s report, Baltimore Inner Harbor’s water exceeded safe bacteria levels 35 percent of the time. That info would be nice to know when the kids are dragging their hands in the water off the dragon boats. Ignorance isn’t bliss, and it can be unhealthy.

4. Look to the Boston area – this can be fixed. But, it took time and a lot of money. Boston’s consent decree begin in 1994, and the municipality will complete work on the decree at month’s end. The cost has been over $4 billion, and has taken 21 years. Admittedly, comparing the Boston area to Baltimore is a bit apples and oranges because Boston’s sewage and stormwater system was combined; Baltimore’s is separate. According to Ria Convery at Massachusetts Resources Water Authority, “We started a lot earlier than Baltimore, our consent decree is from a 1984 lawsuit. It can be done, but takes time and enormous investment.”

5. Baltimore City needs to be transparent and forthright. Environment Integrity Project’s sewage report skewered the city for lack of reporting, not supporting homeowners whose basements were flooded with sewage, no health reporting, and lagging project timelines. Many non-profits (Baltimore Waterfront Partnership, Blue Water Baltimore, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Interfaith Partnership for the Chesapeake, and the Choose Clean Water Coalition) are busting their butts to get funding and working to make our waterways cleaner. It’s clear that few knew the extent of the sewage effluence. For comparison, check out the Boston area’s yearly sewage project report.

The federal decree timeline ends in two weeks; why wasn’t the project delay better communicated by Baltimore City five years ago? The coordination and communication between all the parties trying to clean up the Chesapeake Bay and the Baltimore City Department of Public Works seems weak at best. More importantly, stories like this continue to play into the public’s doubt that Baltimore City can do anything right, even though it’s a highly complex issue of seriously old infrastructure, and major work has been completed.

6. Maintain your home’s sewage line. The sewage problems mentioned in EIP’s report have occurred for residents during heavy rains in parts for the city where sewage infrastructure is still outdated. But many homes, especially older homes, have dry weather overflows, and you have some control in learning your home’s pipe situation.

Do not put grease or oil down your pipes because overtime it builds up and clogs the outgoing pipe and causes a stinky back-up. Consider having a plumber clean your line, and have a closed caption TV line placed in your sewage pipe to determine if your sewage pipe is crumbling terra cotta, or filled with tree roots. Knowing your pipe situation ahead of time can save you massive bills in cleaning and fixing a sewage backup.

The upshot is that it will take years for Baltimore to complete the remaining sewage system upgrades.  As climate change continues to warm ocean waters, rain storms that dump several inches of rain in a few hours will be more frequent. That only raises the sense-of-urgency in retrofitting our aging sewer system.

Laurel Peltier
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Laurel Peltier

Laurel writes the environmental GreenLaurel column every other Thursday in the Baltimore Fishbowl. A graduate of UVA's MBA program, she spends her time with her family and making "all things green" interesting.
Laurel Peltier
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2 COMMENTS

  1. So 60 million gallons of “overflow” still goes into the Jones Falls with only 2 pipes remaining. But it will take years to close/fix those last two pipes? And there were 58 others until recently? Eeek.
    By the way, we are past 1/1/16 – did the City or State get the funds together? It has been 13-14 years. Did they earmark funds?
    Great information!

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