A small “fatberg.” Photo courtesy of Blue Water Baltimore.
A small “fatberg.” Photo courtesy of Blue Water Baltimore.

The creatures that inhabit Baltimore’s Jones Falls are more than familiar with the putrid overflows that arrive with even moderate rains. But last Thursday, on what should have been an off day for sewer discharges, a whopping 1.2 million gallons entered the waterway thanks to a gunky, man-made buildup in a sewer line running below Station North.

The cause? A “fatberg,” as the Baltimore City Department of Public Works dubbed it in a release. The city says “a massive plug of grease” – also comprising congealed fats and oils, caked-on wet wipes and other solids – was blocking 85 percent of a 24-inch sewer main between Penn Station and the 1700 block of N. Charles Street.

As a result, our untreated waste built up in the pipe for who-knows-how-long, causing an unfathomable amount of poop, pee and more to flow out into the Jones Falls at a structured outfall at N. Charles and W. Lanvale Streets. It was the second such overflow caused by the fatberg in two weeks; another occurred on Sept. 14, when 141,000 gallons of sewage leaked in at the same outfall.

That’s one of two remaining outfalls that serve as purposeful release valves for Baltimore’s backed-up sewer system. The city has closed 60 of them, but keeps two handy as an unfortunate necessity to stop our pipes from bursting during heavy rains.

But in this case, it hadn’t rained on Sept. 21 when all that poop entered the stream. Engineers were curious as to why, and sent in a closed-circuit TV camera to investigate. They found the pipe was filled up with fats, oils and grease. They were already working on alleviating the strained pipe when, unfortunately, the backup and resulting sewer overflow occurred.

Here’s what it looked like from inside the sewer:

A view from inside the pipe. Image via DPW.

Under the terms of its consent decree with federal and state environmental regulators, the city and Baltimore County plan to install high-powered pumps at their Back River Wastewaster Treatment Plant, which will alleviate a sometimes miles-long sewage backup and thus allow them to close off the remaining structured outfalls. That $430 million project should be finished in late 2020, DPW officials said.

In Station North, workers will need to replace the clogged pipe, but can only do so once they remove the fatberg. DPW spokesman Jeffrey Raymond detailed that process in brief in an email: “They have to scrape it off the walls, and take it out through manholes. It finds a home in the city’s landfill on Quarantine Road.”

All of this should serve as a damning reminder to Baltimore dwellers to toss their grease and wet wipes into the garbage instead of draining or flushing them with their waste to clog up the city’s infrastructure. Hot water and soap don’t work, Raymond noted. The grease and fats congeal when the water cools, and when the soap’s chemicals wear off.

Restaurants are accountable, too. DPW runs its own monitoring program to check up on establishments that are or could be contributing to the problem.

Click here to read more about that, and be sure to pour one out for the ever-suffering habitats along the Jones Falls.

This story has been updated with comment from DPW spokesman Jeffrey Raymond.

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Ethan McLeod

Ethan McLeod is a freelance reporter in Baltimore. He previously worked as an editor for the Baltimore Business Journal and Baltimore Fishbowl. His work has appeared in Bloomberg CityLab, Next City and...