BALTIMORE – Sewage overflows in Baltimore City surged more than 54,400 percent in 2003, according to city Department of Public Works data, 20 months after Baltimore signed a $940 million federal consent decree mandating a 14-year overhaul of its sewage system.
Almost 130 million gallons of unauthorized raw sewage mixed with storm water spilled into Baltimore streams, ditches and basements through October 2003. That’s up from around 240,000 gallons in 2002.
Raw sewage overflows threaten human and environmental health, and spills from sewage systems designed to be separate from storm water, called sanitary sewage overflows, are a violation of the federal Clean Water Act.
Baltimore was well aware of the problems with its system, one of the oldest of its kind in the nation. It settled a lawsuit with the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in April 2002. A Justice Department statement announcing the settlement said Baltimore suffered frequent overflows “caused by excessive use, limited sewer capacity and infiltration of water into the system caused by years of neglect.”
Most of the 2003 increase, 124 million gallons, occurred during two events at Herring Run blamed on weather-related damage during a year of record-breaking precipitation.
“This year was a unique year,” said Gary Wyatt, chief utility engineer for the city’s Department of Public Works.
Extreme weather brought “some of the worst incidents” in the city’s history, Wyatt said.
At Herring Run, a pipe failure in February allowed an estimated 36 million gallons of raw sewage to ooze into the stream, and a broken manhole released 88 million gallons from mid-June to early July.
In June, Herring Run waters turned gray and emitted a foul odor as toilet paper, condoms, and feminine hygiene products could be seen floating by, said Darin Crew, “stream team” program manager for the Herring Run Watershed Association, who witnessed the spill first hand.
Crew’s association is paid by the city to test water quality by sewage lines, and he took samples during the spill.
“It was gross taking those samples,” he said.
The magnitude of Herring Run’s spills were not publicly known until inquiries from Capital News Service, which analyzed sewage overflow report data through October compiled by Maryland’s Department of the Environment. MDE’s data underreported the spills by 85 million gallons.
When contacted, the city’s Public Works Department discovered an error in 2002 statewide data. More than 26 million gallons of drinking water spills had been mistakenly reported as sewage spills.
The more glaring error arose in the 2003 data, where the second, 88-million-gallon, Herring Run spill was originally reported as only 3 million gallons.
The mistake could have been made in the city Public Works Department or through data entry at MDE, Wyatt said.
Baltimore’s system is “probably . . . one of the oldest separate sewage systems in the nation,” Wyatt said.
Overflows are typically caused by cracked, leaky or root-infested pipes.
In the case of Herring Run, the pipes of the city’s main sewage line, built in the mid 1930s, are now directly under the stream, which has moved with time.
The city’s second, large spill occurred after downed trees and debris from a heavy rainstorm snapped off a manhole, and the pipe promptly filled with rocks, some weighing more than 200 pounds.
It took more than 10 days to clear the pipe, and another flare-up in early July brought the overall amount of sewage spilled to staggering proportions.
A soccer tournament near Herring Run was canceled when the field absorbed untreated sewage. Pet owners also were warned to keep their dogs from wading in the stream.
“It affected not just the stream,” Crew said. “It affected the people and a lot of the community was really upset about that.”
The city, as part of its 14-year upgrade, is lining the insides of its major pipes with plastic and will inspect the entire system over the next 10 years.
Yet the city does not fully know the extent of overflows because they are often hidden and generally underreported, said activist Guy Hollyday, city resident and volunteer chairman of the Baltimore Sanitary Sewer Oversight Coalition.
“The underreporting is something that really ticks me off,” he said.
All overflows were reported, Wyatt said, and overall overflow numbers are expected to improve.
“As the projects get completed,” Wyatt said, “flooding events should not cause the same amount of damage.”