By andy Zieminski
ANNAPOLIS – Ray Morgan says Georges Creek is better than it was 20 years ago, when he got “the worst sore throat I ever had” from just standing in the Allegany County creek.
That doesn’t necessarily mean you would want to stand in the creek today.
Georges Creek is still fouled by millions of gallons of sewage, one of two streams in the state, along with Baltimore’s Gwynns Falls, that have received one-fourth of the sewage spills in the entire state since 2001.
A Capital News Service analysis of data on sewage overflows from the Maryland Department of the Environment showed that the two streams have absorbed almost 660 million gallons of sewage overflows since 2001.
Gwynns Falls, which stretches from Baltimore County into Baltimore City, has taken 414 million gallons of effluent, while Georges Creek has taken 246 million gallons, according to the analysis.
“That’s a pretty good amount of water,” said Morgan, a researcher with the Appalachian Laboratory in the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.
The analysis included sewage spills from all sewer systems in the state — sanitary systems, which carry sewage and water in separate pipes, and combined systems, which carry both in one pipe and are more prone to overflowing in heavy rains.
Sewer system operators are required to report information on spills to the MDE, which has data current through September.
Morgan, who has been studying water quality issues in Georges Creek since the 1980s, said sewage overflows pump bacteria into the water, which can be dangerous for humans and wildlife.
“I’d be a little worried about having to clean up that water,” he said.
Scott Pelton, program director for the Gwynns Falls Watershed Association, said spills in the Gwynns Falls stream pose a health danger to people and their pets when they splash in the water, which runs through a large, forested park in Baltimore City.
Some activists also worry that sewage spills in Gwynns Falls contribute to pollution in the Inner Harbor, where the water ends up.
“At least once a year there are those wild events where people make boats that sink and they end up in the Inner Harbor,” said Guy Hollyday, who runs the Baltimore Sewer Coalition, a collection of watershed associations in the city.
“I simply don’t understand why the people who own yachts and sail boats and other boats in the harbor don’t demand that it be cleaned up,” Hollyday said.
Gary Wyatt, chief of utility engineering for the city’s Department of Public Works, said people should not get sick from swimming in city waterways — because swimming is banned in them. He also noted that the city gets its drinking water from reservoirs in Carroll and Baltimore counties that are not connected to Gwynns Falls.
Georges Creek does not supply drinking water to anyone, officials in Allegany County said.
Allegany County and Baltimore City officials say they are spending millions of dollars to repair their sewer pipes, a process that will take years and is required under the terms of consent decrees they have entered into with the federal government.
Wyatt said the city finished repairing this summer the sewer pipes that run parallel to Gwynns Falls and Gwynns Run, a tributary that feeds into the stream.
The city’s sewer system is 100 years old. Many old pipes are parallel to streams like Gwynns Falls because the streams run downhill toward the harbor and designers at the time wanted to take advantage of gravity.
More than half of the 414 million gallons that have spilled into Gwynns Falls came in a single 2004 incident, when heavy rain and melting snow caused 274 million gallons to spill into the water at Purnell Drive and North Forest Park Avenue, according to the MDE data.
“That we fixed,” Wyatt said.
Under its consent decree, the city has until 2016 to repair all of its sewers and eliminate its overflows.
In Allegany County, the city of Frostburg is spending $1 million to $3 million a year to “aggressively” tackle problems with its antiquated sewers, which have dumped millions of gallons of sewage into Georges Creek, said Christopher Hovatter, the city’s director of public works.
Frostburg relies on combined sewer systems, which overflow easily when it rains.
“When an average 1-inch rainfall hits town, the flow in our sewer pipes is probably 1,000-fold what it normally is,” Hovatter said.
The city of 8,000 is working to separate its sewage and water into different pipes, a project that Hovatter said will cost an estimated $24 million and take up to 20 years.
But millions of gallons of sewage are just one more problem for Georges Creek, which runs about 15 miles from Frostburg to Westernport before emptying into the Potomac River. In 2005, a four-mile stretch of the river turned orange and highly acidic, probably because of a nearby abandoned mineshaft that collapsed.
“Georges Creek is just one of the saddest of streams in all of Maryland at the moment,” said Ed Merrifield, director of the Potomac Riverkeeper, a watershed organization.
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