City Approves $430M ‘Headworks’ Project Designed to Fix Baltimore’s Underground Sewage Backup

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Waste “digesters” at the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

A plan is moving forward to stop the miles-long sewage buildup that causes fecal matter to flow into Baltimore’s waterways nearly every time it rains.

The city’s Board of Estimates this morning approved a $430 million payout for a construction project known as Headworks that will install eight hydraulic pumps and two storage tanks inside or near the pipes leading to the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant in Baltimore County. The city and county are splitting the cost 50/50 at $215 million apiece, according to board minutes from today.

The Back River plant processes sewage flowing from Baltimore-area toilets into the city’s century-old sewage system. However, a hydraulic restriction discovered years ago by engineers has caused backups of up to 10 miles, sometimes stretching all the way to Charles Village.

Whenever it rains heavily, the poop fills up the 12-foot-wide pipe. To prevent it from blowing out, the Department of Public Works opens so-called structured outfalls to let the untreated sewage spill into the Jones Falls, which leads to the harbor.

With the Headworks project, DPW will install four 1,000-horsepower hydraulic pumps to eliminate that hydraulic restriction, and another four 1,500-horsepower pumps to divert sewage and rainwater. That mixture will head to a new pair of storage tanks holding a combined 36 million gallons of waste. Once a storm has passed and the buildup in the pipe abates, the fecal matter will proceed to the treatment plant where it will be processed.

DPW estimates the volume of overflowing sewage during storms will fall by more than 80 percent once it’s finished.

Headworks will also add new screening facilities to preserve the pumps and “remove fine solids,” and another grit removal facility “to remove fine particles,” according to DPW.

Officials praised the board’s decision, with DPW Director Rudy Chow in a statement calling the plan “fiscally responsible,” and Mayor Catherine Pugh saying it “will make for a cleaner Baltimore.”

The city is required to complete the project under a consent decree reached with the federal Environmental Protection Agency and Maryland Department of the Environment in 2002. The original deadline to fix the city’s sewage problems was 2016, but both agencies approved an extension to 2030 last summer.

The deadline for Headworks alone is 2021. Accordingly, DPW said Headworks will be finished and operational by Dec. 31, 2020.

As we’ve noted before, Headworks’ completion is a key component of fulfilling the Healthy Harbor Initiative’s mission to make the harbor swimmable and fishable within the next three years. Others include increased monitoring of other sections of the sewer system, convincing the public to stop littering and, of course, more trash wheels.

Ethan McLeod
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