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Baltimore’s Secret Sewage Dumping and Declining Harbor Raise Questions

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Clean water activists with Blue Water Baltimore this month released the most recent report card on the health of Baltimore Harbor. They found that water quality worsened in 2015, falling to a 51 percent rating out of 100 – an F grade – compared to a 53 in 2014.

“We frankly did not see improvement in the bacteria levels in the harbor, Jones Falls and Gwynns Falls,” said David Flores, the Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper with the organization.  "The bacteria levels remain really high, both during dry and wet weather, and as a result, our waterways are not safe for contact.”

This is newsworthy in the context that Baltimore over the last decade has spent almost a billion dollars –raised by tripling local sewer and water rates --with the goal of solving this problem by fixing its leaky sewer system.

A billion dollars spent by the Baltimore Department of Public Works, but no evidence the water is any cleaner.  

Back in 2002, the U.S. Department of Justice sued the city because its century old sewer system was discharging so many millions of gallons of human waste into the Harbor and Chesapeake Bay that it was a violation of the federal Clean Water Act.

To settle the lawsuit, then Mayor Martin O’Malley signed a consent decree that committed the city to stopping all sewage overflows and spills by January 1, 2016.  That deadline came and went, and now the city – nearly six months later –  is secret negotiations with EPA and the Maryland Department of the Environment to try to get a deadline extension of perhaps a decade.

But, meanwhile, Baltimore continues to intentionally dump sewage into the Inner Harbor down the Jones Falls. For example, on February 24, the city released more than 12 million gallons to relieve pressure from an antiquated pipe system that becomes overwhelmed when it rains.

All this raises questions for Flores.   “What’s happened over the last 14 years?  What has been raised in revenue?  What has been spent?  And what has it been spent on to fix the problem?” 

Baltimore Sun reporter Scott Dance published an investigation on Sunday that found that almost 5,000 city residents last year reported sewage from the city’s overwhelmed pipe system backing up to flood their homes. 

Dance said he heard complains of city residents of having to pay thousands of dollars to repair and clean up their basements. So far, Baltimore has paid only 8 percent of the 160 sewage damage claims filed by city residents last year.

That was an average of more than a dozen complaints a day…. 40 times the number in Baltimore County, although the county has a larger population.

“A woman sued the city saying she was blown off her toilet by the force of a sewage backup,” Dance said.  “That was another one that really got me interested in this story.”

City public works officials declined to be interviewed. But they said in an email that some of these backups are not the city’s fault.

“Just because there is a backup does not mean the City’s infrastructure is the cause,” said Jeff Raymond, spokesman for the Baltimore Department of Public Works in the email.  “Tree roots entering a homeowner’s sewer line, along with flushing wipes and even rags down the toilets, coupled with cooking grease, and add in aged terra-cotta private services that are subject to failing are all causes for sewage backups.”

City officials said Baltimore is now finally making progress in its long-delayed upgrades to its outdated sewage system. 

For example, two weeks ago, the city signed a $4 million contract with a pair companies, Clark Construction and Ulliman Schutte, LLC, that are working to fix a misalignment of a 12-foot sewer main leading to the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant, which has been causing a blockage and a ten-mile sewage backup under the city.  That so-called “headworks” project should be finished by 2020 and allow the city to close its remaining two sewage overflow relief pipes on the Jones Falls, eliminating 80 percent of the sewage overflows, city officials said.

In an opinion article published in Sunday’s Baltimore Sun, Department of Public Works Director Rudy Chow blamed about eight years of delays on the city’s lack of knowledge about this blockage in the sewer line leading to the Back River plant, which he said the city did not discover until 2010.  He also chided clean water activists for being too impatient.

“Yes, we live in an era where we expect instant results, but fixing a 110-year-old system takes logical steps, extensive engineering and solid construction,” Chow wrote. “We are moving forward toward a cleaner harbor. The dramatic result will not be instant but it will be soon.”

However, there is one part of the problem the city could solve instantly and at no cost, if it wanted to. 

When Baltimore releases sewage into the Inner Harbor’s main tributary, the Jones Falls, at least two thirds of the time it refuses to obey a state law that requires public reporting to the press and local residents of sewage overflows of more than $10,000 gallons. The city also refuses to report this sewage dumping to a public sewage overflow database maintained by the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE).

MDE and EPA should start requiring the city to follow this public disclosure law. And the city should be  more open with city ratepayers who worry the city is flushing their money --and their city’s waterfront and neighborhoods -- down the sewer.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.