ANNAPOLIS – Unauthorized raw sewage overflows in Maryland skyrocketed more than 1,250 percent this year, threatening human and environmental health, as record rainfall and Hurricane Isabel overwhelmed sewage systems across the state.
More than 355 million gallons of untreated sewage water were released into basements, ditches and streams through October — up from around 26 million gallons released in 2002 — according to Maryland Department of the Environment and Baltimore City data.
That’s enough for every Marylander to flush a typical toilet 13 times.
The increase points to aging sewage systems throughout the state prone to malfunctions. A Capital News Service analysis of separate sanitary sewer overflow report data through October compiled by MDE shows an increase in nearly every state jurisdiction. The CNS analysis did not include data from antiquated combined sewage systems that mix storm water and sewage, which contributed another 300 million gallons to the state’s overflow problem in 2003 through October.
Much of the sanitary sewer increase occurred in Baltimore City, where weather damage to the city’s main sewage line under Herring Run unleashed 124 million gallons during two massive spills.
The magnitude of the Baltimore spills only came to light after inquiries from CNS because the amounts were misreported in MDE’s database.
Prince George’s County’s sewage system disgorged 96 million gallons of wastewater during Hurricane Isabel, when power outages shut down two of the state’s largest sewage facilities.
Only Baltimore County, Caroline, Wicomico and Worcester Counties showed improvement from last year.
The data are the first clear indication of the extent of sewage system flaws throughout the state since overflow reporting became mandatory in October 2000.
Extreme weather, amid the wettest year in more than a century at Baltimore/Washington International Airport, according to the National Weather Service, challenged sewage systems that bore less strain during the two-year drought that ended in 2002.
“Obviously it’s a large amount,” said David Lyons, water management compliance division chief at Maryland’s Department of the Environment. “If we have a storm that comes through and knocks out power in half the state we’re going to have (overflows).”
Overflows from systems designed to be separate from storm water collection, called sanitary sewer overflows, are prohibited by the federal Clean Water Act and are the target of compliance goals set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as well as MDE.
They occur when leaky, cracked or root-infested sewage pipes collect storm water that floods the system, MDE officials said, spewing sewage before it reaches the treatment plant. This can occur at elevated overflow points called “stacks,” manholes or basement toilets.
Pipes blocked by grease can cause similar overflows during wet weather, and fractured pipes can release sewage even in dry weather.
Overflows also occur when sewage facilities shut down during energy blackouts.
All of these types of malfunctions contributed to the astronomical rise in overflows.
Baltimore City’s sewage system buckled under the weather, releasing almost 130 million gallons through October, a 54,400 percent increase from last year’s 238,000 gallons.
Most of that increase occurred during two massive spills at Herring Run, which dumped 36 million gallons in February and 88 million gallons from mid-June until early July.
Those events were bad news for a city familiar with sewage woes. Baltimore signed a federal consent decree in April 2002 mandating a $940 million, 14-year overhaul of its sewage system and a $600,000 penalty. Despite the two large spills, Baltimore Public Works officials said upgrades are on track.
Initially, the second spill at Herring Run was reported as 3 million gallons in MDE’s database. That erroneous report was either the error of a city public works employee or a data entry mistake at MDE, said Gary Wyatt, chief utility engineer for the city’s Department of Public Works.
Aside from the reporting error, Wyatt said the city’s reports to MDE — required by state law — are accurate and all-inclusive.
“As the projects get completed,” Wyatt said, “flooding events should not cause the same amount of damage.”
Allegany County suffered a 412 percent increase, from around 9.3 million gallons in 2002 to 47.8 million gallons through October 2003.
Washington County saw more than an 8,000 percent increase to 36.2 million gallons, up from about 436,000 gallons last year.
But by far the largest percentage increase, more than 110,000 percent, came in Prince George’s County, which released almost 107 million gallons through October — up from 96,000 gallons in 2002.
Prince George’s County’s sewer systems are operated by the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, which also serves Montgomery County.
Power outages caused a massive four-day overflow at the Broad Creek wastewater pumping station in Fort Washington and a 26-hour spill at Western Branch wastewater treatment plant in Upper Marlboro.
Broad Creek and Western Branch are two of the largest sewage treatment facilities in the state, each capable of processing 30 million gallons of sewage daily. They both use dual electrical feeds instead of generators due to their size, WSSC officials said.
When both feeds were severed, sewage quickly began to overflow.
Due to the blackout overflows, WSSC decided to install huge generators at both facilities over the next two years at a cost of $1.2 million.
“Isabel cemented the fact that dual power was not going to be as reliable,” said Chuck Brown, spokesman for WSSC.
Such upgrades are unusual, as “the vast majority” of the 54 largest treatment plants, designed to treat more than 1 million gallons a day, rely on dual electrical feeds, MDE’s Lyons said.
Many counties saw large increases compared to last year, but represent smaller amounts compared to the largest polluters. Only Baltimore City and Prince George’s, Allegany and Washington counties logged more than 10 million gallons of overflow, according to the CNS analysis.
And though the overall increase of sewage overflow volume this year has been staggering, the total number of overflows increased less dramatically. There were 1,049 overflows through October, up 30 percent from 807 in 2002.
What that means is that the average overflow in 2003 was much larger than last year: around 338,600 gallons per overflow compared to around 32,500 gallons in 2002.
Human contact with raw sewage can lead to serious health consequences. Pathogens, viruses and intestinal worms can be found in discharges, the EPA said in a March 2003 enforcement alert.
Exposure can lead to “serious illnesses such as cholera, dysentery, infectious hepatitis, and gastroenteritis,” the alert said, and children and the elderly are particularly susceptible.
“There are things in sewage that can make people acutely and seriously sick,” said Kevin DeBell, an EPA environmental protection specialist who is coordinating a sewage overflow study to be presented to Congress early next year.
But the number of people who get sick across the nation due to sewage overflows is exceedingly hard to track because “the majority of illnesses that result are not things that people go to the doctor for,” DeBell said.
Sewage overflows also threaten the environment. While they are dwarfed by both treated sewage and farm runoff in terms of pollution rolling into the Chesapeake Bay, large overflows have prompted MDE to close bay tributaries to shellfish harvesting.
Because shellfish are filter feeders, bacteria and viruses present in sewage accumulate in shellfish tissues and they are a good indicator of water quality.
Poor water quality has contributed to the collapse of many bay fisheries, and sewage overflows play some role in this decline.
Yet despite the dangers posed by overflows, no separate sewage system is designed to be flawless. They break down over time and require maintenance.
“It’s a constant struggle to keep these systems from discharging where they’re not supposed to,” said Bob Chominski, the EPA regional coordinator who tracks Mid-Atlantic sanitary sewage overflows.
“Maryland is not unique,” Chominski said, “There’s (sanitary sewage overflow) problems throughout the country.”
The EPA estimated in 2000 that it would cost $88.5 billion to upgrade the nation’s separate sewage systems so they only suffered, at most, one overflow every five years.
A task force appointed by former Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening reported in 2001 that upgrading Maryland’s separate sewer lines would cost about $1.2 billion, a charge that would likely be passed along to customers through rates.
But in tough economic times for many jurisdictions, the prospect of raising sewage rates seems grim.
“How much can you charge before the community starts to push back?” Chominski asked.
Yet including the cost of upgrades in sewage rates is important, said Jean Holloway, training officer at the University of Maryland’s Environmental Finance Center.
“You can’t control nature,” Holloway said. “But you can prepare for ordinary and predictable situations.”