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Baltimore’s 8/12 sewage overflows – disturbing in print, amazing on video

If only we had smell-o-vision!

sewer overflow footage baltimore harbor waterkeeper

Raw sewage overflows from sanitary sewer at 1901 Falls Road on August 12, 2014.

Photo by: Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper

The Department of Public Works’ disclosure of 3.2 million gallons of sewage – UPDATE: this evening corrected by the city to 12.2 million gallons of sewage – flowing into Baltimore harbor on August 12 concentrated on the big spill at the Patapsco Wastewater Treatment Plant in Fairfield.

But there was lots more tainted water coming out of the city’s seams elsewhere that day, as illustrated by this footage compiled by Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper David Flores.

First, here’s a primer on what happens in Baltimore during a big rainstorm:

The storm drain system collecting the runoff leaks or overflows (through cracks and holes) into the separate sewer lines carrying the “raw” stuff (from toilets, kitchen sinks, factory floors, etc.) to the Patapsco and Back River treatment plants.

Pressure gets so intense in these sewers, especially in the big “interceptor” lines, that the effluent bursts out from sewer manholes into city streets or local streams.

The mix of sewage and rainwater that goes down the streets – jumping over curbs, inundating sidewalks and puddling at low-lying corners – gathers up lots of surface dirt and debris.

The runoff that doesn’t flood directly into rowhouse basements goes back into the storm drains that then release the contaminated water directly into the harbor.

The locales of the stormwater outfalls along the harbor include some swanky addresses. Among them: Harbor East’s Lancaster Street, Canton’s Harris Creek below the Safeway on Boston Street, and Alluvion Street just north of the new Horseshoe Casino parking garage.

In the footage above, the overflow can be seen flooding parts of the East Baltimore Development (EBDI) district on Chase, Eager and Durham streets, just north of the Johns Hopkins Medical Center.

[UPDATE: DPW now says that 9 million gallons were "lost," or dumped, into these three streets on August 12, making for the 12.3 million gallon total of sewage overflows stemming from the record rainfall of that day.]

The “shitwater” (to use a quaint local term) tumbles into storm drains that take it in underground tunnels to Lancaster Street, where it empties into the harbor, according to Flores.

Even on days without heavy rainfall, the water along the Lancaster Street promenade is littered with surface debris.

A Hardy Perennial

The Waterkeeper gang also shot a scene at 1901 Falls Road where raw sewage is spewing out of manholes onto the street and the Jones Falls Trail.

A city storm drain that collects rainfall and often leaks during heavy rain into the city's sanitary sewer system. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

A storm drain that collects surface water and often leaks into sanitary sewers during heavy rainfalls. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

This spot (close to the Baltimore Streetcar Museum) is a hardy perennial of Baltimore overflows.

The mix of rainwater and sewage flushes down the Jones Falls to the Inner Harbor, where it sometimes can cause fish kills and sometimes just a terrible stench.

Whoosh

Watch the DPW truck whoosh matter-of-factly through flooded Falls Road on its way to the city’s maintenance yard just up the street.

It struck us as emblematic of the way these events seem to be regarded as part of a baseline level of municipal dysfunction that a 2002 consent decree with the state and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is still far from fixing.

By the way, the Waterkeeper looking for volunteers to monitor both stormwater and sewage pollution. Contact dflores@bluewaterbaltimore.org.

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  • Tastes Better than the Truth

    The “believed to exceed 10,000 gallons” of raw sewage is now over 12 millions gallons per the City Paper: http://www.citypaper.com/blogs/the-news-hole/bcp-this-weeks-4-pmfriday-sewer-spill-press-release-20140822,0,7047283.story

    The City really likes these later Friday afternoon press releases.

    • River Mud

      Luckily, the EPA doesn’t actually care, because otherwise the City would be found in violation of the 2002 Consent Decree and be forced to negotiate a new, more expensive and restrictive consent decree.

  • elin_stigador

    Are you guys trying to be a serious news outlet or just blast the city for fun? This article is filled with snark, but I guess you’re playing to your audience, Mark. Also, the facility on Falls Rd is a DOT facility NOT a DPW facility. Any idiot with half a brain can identify the salt dome located here (half collapsed and unsafe looking as it is), and know that it isn’t a public works facility. I’m not even sure how you can identify it as a DPW truck, as City vehicles don’t have distinctive markings on their sides identifying departments. The author here clearly just decided to make an assumption to further his argument without bothering to check facts. And here I was thinking that Baltimore Brew focused on INVESTIGATIVE journalism.

    • baltimorebrew

      My goodness, you are defensive. The article refers to the “city’s maintenance yard” – it does not identify the yard as either DPW or DOT. So your gripe gets down to the (possible) misidentification of the departmental origin of a city truck? -mr

      • elin_stigador

        Except that your supposed identification of the truck leads to your conclusion that “It struck us as emblematic of the way these events seem to be regarded as part of a baseline level of municipal dysfunction that a 2002 consent decree with the state and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is still far from fixing.” If it was a garbage truck, would it still be emblematic? The level of bias in this writing is not masked.

        • baltimorebrew

          The commenter elin_stigador appears to have edited out his or her own comments, something DISQUS allows commenters to do. -fs

          • River Mud

            Pity.

          • Tom Gregory

            Could be Morse code.

    • baltimorebrew

      Usha Nellore was having trouble posting this and asked us to put it in here on her behalf. -fs

      When the rains came in torrents
      the opaque sheets and sheets
      found no place to go
      except through the storm drains
      to the sewers below–
      in listless Baltimore,
      the overflow

      burst through the manholes,
      ferocious fountains tumbled
      and didn’t fumble a second,
      water in its wisdom
      found its way–
      to the gray, cold arms of the bay–
      where all things begin and end
      in the primordial sea–

      the rains wounded by wending there
      with plenty of human waste.

      But the city unconscious moved on wheels,
      trucks flippant scooped the water underneath
      and spilled the rot cavalierly on the sidewalks–
      people walked nonchalantly under umbrellas–

      time sped– sadistic as always
      in its forward acceleration.

      A man said, “Look, how a DPW truck whooshes
      through the floods emblematic of how little
      the city cares about fixing– what ails the bay–

      pacts, promises and decrees
      from when the millennium turned
      dissolve in the rain and revolve in discs of filth
      to our bay–a wondrous accident of the ice age,
      browned, spoiled and caged.”

      Another man replied,”Did you say DPW truck?

      That is a lie–there is no way you can divine,
      from the exterior of a city truck
      from where came that truck or how came that truck.
      It sucks that you are a journalist–
      casually you sensationalize– to advance your point

      against the city–you play to your audience
      because they will not scrutinize, instead they’ll buy
      your unverified venom against the city!”

      Nothing changed after that interchange!
      The city unconscious moved on wheels,

      trucks flippant scooped the water underneath
      and spilled the rot cavalierly on the sidewalks,
      people walked nonchalantly under umbrellas,
      time sped–sadistic as always–in its acceleration
      it abandoned pacts, promises and decrees

      like human waste whirling to the seas
      and the bay a vestige of the ice age
      engorged with algae teetered
      as folks fought over minutiae…

      Usha Nellore

    • Gerald Neily

      Elin Stigador is “El Instigador”… Once it has been instigated, Has Been takes over.

  • craigpurcell

    Who pays for the damage done to the biosphere/ecosystem — the Consent Decree ? Without clean water & environment as precious resource Baltimore is just another decaying industrial city with little future. At least Baltimore has good system for separating effluent from stormwater compared to other municipal systems which don’t have a two pipe system.

    See consent decree:http://www2.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2013-09/documents/baltimore-cd.pdf

    • baltimorebrew

      But, Craig, note it was the two-pipe system that failed in East Baltimore on 8/12, leading to the now-confirmed dumping of 9 million gallons of rainwater-diluted sewage into the streets. The city’s two-pipe system is old, leaks and doesn’t have sufficient capacity for big storms, not to speak of super-big storms like 8/12.

      The aim of the 12-yr-old-but-still-unaccomplished consent decree is to (try to) force the city to modernize. -mr

      • ham_snadwich

        The city will never build a system that can accommodate a 500 year storm. It’d be phenomenally expensive, physically impossible in some places and would go unused most of the time.
        Just for perspective, during the storm we had the other day, a typical block of residential street generated about 50,000 gallons of runoff from the roadway alone.

    • River Mud

      The City’s constantly negotiating with EPA to do less, and less, and less under the decree because of the “burden” of the task. So the answer to your question is: no one. No one’s paying, and the work’s not getting done.

  • bmorepanic

    Notice how these sewer leaks also went unreported until 10 ten days or so after the events. I cringed watching the videos for the people near or in the contaminated water.

    All kinds of stuff can be in sewer water – fecal coliform, chemicals, metals, oils, paints, etc. Imagine normal cleaners meeting solvents, meeting chemicals used in commercial processes and also whatever was cleaned off, all of it drenched in fecal matter and dissolved in whatever the runoff water contains.

    Now, soak yourself or your pets in it and see what happens next.

  • Has been

    Actually, mr, one of the first things I noted about the article was the incorrect agency reference. The “city maintenance yard” is indeed a DOT yard, not a DPW yard. It just speaks to the lack of rigor of brew reporting. One “whoosh” past the yard clearly identifies it as a DOT yard, n

    • Gerald Neily

      So Has Been, you’re interested in a more specific identification of that yard (taking up the cause when Elin Stigador changed his/her mind). OK, you’ve edified us. Now we know. But I guess some of us see things differently. What I was more interested in here was the sewage.

    • River Mud

      The article reads “city maintenance yard.” City DOT, is, after all, part of the City government, and therefore, their maintenance yard would be….drumroll….a City maintenance yard.

  • Has been

    Actually, mr, one of the first things I noted about the article was the incorrect agency reference. The “city maintenance yard” is indeed a DOT yard, not a DPW yard. It just speaks to the lack of rigor of brew reporting and editing. One “whoosh” past the yard clearly identifies it as a DOT yard, not a DPW yard. Does this matter? Yes, it does. For all you know, this crew might be responsible for fixing street lights. Municipal laziness and incompetence exists, most certainly…as does journalistic laziness and incompetence.

    • baltimorebrew

      These accusations coming from a “has been” former DOT official? Let’s settle down, bro. -mr

    • River Mud

      The writing’s not great and your reading comprehension is worse. The article mentions a DPW TRUCK and a “City maintenance yard.” City DOT, is, afterall, a CITY agency, right? Does it matter? Yes it does. You should have taken four extra seconds to read the words on your screen. I wouldn’t call it journalistic incompetence (groan), as much as it simply reads like an email from a colleague on the topic. None of this takes away from the well known reality that 1) the City is a partner in poor faith in the Consent Decree compliance, and 2) City DPW routinely begs to EPA to lengthen the compliance time and decrease the compliance efforts required.

    • River Mud

      The writing’s not great and your reading comprehension is worse. The article mentions a DPW TRUCK and a “City maintenance yard.” City DOT, is, afterall, a CITY agency, right? Does it matter? Yes it does. You should have taken four extra seconds to read the words on your screen. I wouldn’t call it journalistic incompetence (groan), as much as it simply reads like an email from a colleague on the topic. None of this takes away from the well known reality that 1) the City is a partner in poor faith in the Consent Decree compliance, and 2) City DPW routinely begs to EPA to lengthen the compliance time and decrease the compliance efforts required.

    • ushanellore

      Where is your concentration on what really matters–the environmental impact of storm overflows and the degradation of the bay, thanks to the city not implementing necessary upgrades and repairs to mitigate endless recurrences and vicious cycles of sewage contamination? This is like a chronic disease that is allowed to fester and people like you are the diversions that perpetuate the symptoms. Get with it.

      Has been elin_stigador– I wish your vim and “vigador” were directed more at the lack of “rigador” of the city in following the Consent Decree.

  • Matt R

    Folks, reason 5,025,959 that you should never go swimming in the harbor or any of it’s tributaries.

  • Seth Rosenberg

    Did they even count the storm water interceptor at Gwynns Falls?

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