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What Baltimore and Rio Share in Common: Third World Water Pollution

EPA Chesapeake Bay Program

It was just before sunrise, and in the shadow of the Domino's sugar plant in Baltimore Harbor three friends were fishing from a small boat. Nearby, even though it was on a Sunday, employees were hard at work outside the factory in hardhats and yellow vests, using a giant crane to unload a Panamanian freighter.   The sugar plant’s nearly century-old, eight-story brick building rose up over the ship next to three metal tanks labelled "blackstrap molasses."

The fishermen used an electric motor to purr slowly along beside a long wooden pier, casting their lines into the dark, smooth water.  A cool breeze stirred, the sun rose above the horizon, and light flashed off the glass office buildings of downtown Baltimore like they were on fire.

After a while, one of the fishermen caught something – and reeled in a striped bass.

I asked him why he fished there – and he said Baltimore Harbor was the best fishing spot in the world. He said the rockfish tasted extra sweet, like they’d been eating Domino’s sugar.  These anglers were among nine fishermen, plus three crabbers, as well as a woman on a paddle board and two kayaker that I passed as I paddled my way around the harbor on my kayak.  It was a glorious morning on the water that made me love Baltimore.

But, my trip also made me angry.  That's because I knew that, despite the beauty, the water in Baltimore Harbor is actually too polluted for healthy fishing, crabbing, or even kayaking, although people do it anyway, because it’s the only waterfront we have.

I was wearing rubber gloves, because I know that the Baltimore Department of Public Works intentionally dumps millions of gallons of raw human waste into the harbor whenever it rains to relieve pressure on a leaky, overwhelmed sewer system.  The city’s own water quality monitoring data shows that fecal bacteria levels in the harbor reach levels that are 400 times higher than public health experts consider safe for even limited-contact recreation, like kayaking.

In 2002, Baltimore signed a consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department in which Baltimore officials promised to stop all of these sewage overflows and spills by January 1 of this year.  But despite tripling our water and sewer bills to raise almost a billion dollars for the project, the city only finished about a third of the required sewage system upgrade projects by the deadline.  And now Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake’s administration is asking a federal judge to approve a revised consent decree with an extension of another 14 years – until 2030 – before it finally stops the sewage overflows and cleans up the harbor.

The people of Baltimore deserve better than this.  The harbor is our city’s historic and cultural center, our economic engine.  Baltimore’s broken promises to fix the sewer system and gross mismanagement remind me of Rio’s broken promises to stop its sewage flows into Guanabara Bay in Brazil in advance of the Olympics now underway.  Rio officials claimed that they would spend billions of dollars to upgrade their sewage systems. But they, like Baltimore’s leaders, didn’t come anywhere near to finishing the promised work. And now Olympic athletes must compete in waters teeming with feces and viruses. I am in the same boat with the Olympians.

Baltimore has a Third-World water pollution problem.  But America is not Brazil.  We are the richest country in the world, and we pride ourselves on our exceptionalism – especially our high standard of living and our engineering prowess.  If we cannot solve a basic public health problem like dumping human waste into our waterways, we deserve a gold medal for hypocrisy.

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.