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Environmentby Mark Reutter5:53 pmAug 22, 20140

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

If only we had smell-o-vision!

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

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.


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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