Greenlaurel: Beneath the Surface of Baltimore Harbor’s Failing Clean-Up Grade

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The Waterfront Partnership and Baltimore City have joined paddles to expand the affordable public kayaking program.

At face value, the 2016 Healthy Harbor Report is pretty depressing. Another year of failing grades in swimming stats and fecal matter and pollutant levels. But if you dive beneath the surface, there’s a clear story of progress, pipes and partnership. If only time could speed up a bit so we could all enjoy — maybe even swim — in a cleaner Baltimore Harbor sooner, rather than later.

For the first time in many moons, the Baltimore Harbor has a real chance at being swimmable. Though the Waterfront Partnership team’s 2020 “swimming party” goal is optimistic, the harbor’s cleanup is progressing, and the leadership, expertise, massive funding and coordination are finally in place. This public-private-nonprofit-community collaboration explains why Congressman John Sarbanes, D-District 3, Maryland Secretary of the Environment Benjamin Grumbles, Department of Public Works Director Rudolph (Rudy) Chow, Dels. Brooke Lierman and Robbyn Lewis and hundreds of others spent an hour reviewing the failing 2016 Healthy Harbor Report Card.

Reasons for Hope:

As we’ve reported, the Baltimore-area got busted by the feds because our harbor was filthy. It’s a detailed story, but in short, the issues surrounding Baltimore’s aging sewage system coupled with lots of stormwater pollution have festered for decades. In 2001, Uncle Sam got fed up and stepped in, ordering the dreaded consent decree requiring the Baltimore area to fix the pipes, the poop and the pollution.

Baltimore H2O factoids:

  1. Baltimore’s drinking water is very good. Tap water is separate from this story.
  2. Baltimore City and Baltimore County share sewage and waste treatment resources. This isn’t just a “city thing.”
  3. The sewage system was developed more than 100 years ago. Large sections of sewer pipes were added in the 1950s as the population grew.
  4. Baltimore’s unfiltered street stormwater system is separate from the sewage system.
  5. In case you were wondering, Baltimore doesn’t have lead pipes like Flint, Mich.

What’s Working in Baltimore Harbor Clean-Up

No. 1: DPW Director Rudolph S. Chow is in Town

Following a long tenure at the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, Rudy Chow joined Baltimore DPW, bringing 30 years of experience that the city sorely needed. Though Chow has only been DPW’s director since 2014, the personnel, planning and administration changes have been significant.

“Baltimore is very fortunate to have Rudy Chow at the helm of DPW. We have been through four heads since the federal consent decree was finalized in 2002,” said Michael Hankin, the Baltimore Waterfront Partnership’s board chair. “Rudy is not only the most effective of the four, but he is one of the leading DPW heads in the country. He has balanced a need to provide quick results with longer term strategic planning.”

Hankin added that Chow’s “commitment to the Headworks’ project [see below] should be especially noted, as the consent decree didn’t require this additional $400 million sewage pipe fix.”

No 2: No Improvement Until $400 million Headworks Project is Done in 2020

Until the dreaded federal consent decree forced a sewage system audit, no one knew that the intake pipe that brings 1.3 million people’s sewage to the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant was broken.

The result is a 10-mile underground backup (again, see below) when heavy rains seep into the sewage system. To ensure that it doesn’t “blow out” when it hits capacity, Baltimore City must keep open the last two sewage overflow pipes. These overflows dump untreated sewage into the Jones Falls River during severe rain events.

The good news is that the Back River pipe — named the Headworks project — is funded and work is underway. Chow has committed to a 2020 completion date. But until these last two sewage overflow pipes are permanently sealed, the harbor’s water quality will continue to suffer.

One big and broken pipe into the Back River Sewage Plant results in frequent 10-mile underground sewage backups. 

No 3: Baltimore City’s New Asset Management Division

Dovetailing with the problems being addressed by the Headworks project, until three years ago, Baltimore City didn’t have a sewage asset management system, nor a team in place.

According to Baltimore City Chief, Communications and Community Affairs Jeffrey Raymond, there was no one person, or group, that was accountable for the pipes and sewage infrastructure. The newly formed asset management team is conducting ongoing assessments of the conditions of our aging system. Knowing what infrastructure is “about to go is crucial so that issues can be fixed proactively,” Raymond said.

“When Rudy took over, the department was largely depleted of the engineering staff necessary to evaluate the need for and implement large projects,” added Hankin. “He has hired many young engineers, which bodes well for the future.”  

No 4: Baltimore Waterfront Partnership

The trash wheels. Yoga in the Park. Cigarette butt recycling. Floating oyster beds. These are all visible programs developed by the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore. Created in 2009 with support from Baltimore’s business and foundation community, the nonprofit is focused on making Baltimore’s waterfront a world-class asset.

The team at Baltimore Waterfront is a capable group of waterkeepers, marketers and project managers who work well with the many players in this group clean-up effort: Blue Water Baltimore, teams within Baltimore City and Baltimore County, MDE and community organizations.

Now We Wait

Cleaning up Baltimore’s Harbor is a complicated story. Billions of taxpayer dollars are being invested. And there is the very unfortunate and continued issue that Baltimore basements may back up with sewage until the Headworks project is complete.

Yet, Mr. Trash Wheel collected less trash in 2016, most likely because Baltimore City’s expanded street-sweeping program now collects about one million pounds of street litter every two or so weeks. Green and stormwater infrastructure is being installed all over town. It’s even safe to swim more often in the harbor.

But for now, we have to wait for some pipes to get fixed.

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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1 COMMENT

  1. I am glad you are bringing attention to this. But, unless you monitor this closely and keep printing who is really responsible, it will not happen. I have lived in CO now for 15 yrs. When I lived there on the east side, the treatment plant broke down all the time. In 2001, they were building new pipes etc and I was told when I complained about the constant putrid smell, that it would be another year to complete it. You see if this was in Hunt Valley, it would already be done. Go where the money is and you will find that things get done. It is incomprehensible to me some of the neglected areas of direct responsibility. The City collects so much money for this water, and they need to be sued by the people for failure to perform. The EPA/Water grants are going to be reduced greatly under Trump, so maybe once it is the Marylanders’ taxes paying for this, something or someone will be held accountable!

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