Pieces of feces on the road.
Tampons, baby wipes and toilet paper in the grass. Pink syringe caps on the Jones Falls Trail, where runners run and bikers bike.
At the city’s sewer outfall on Falls Road yesterday, just up from the Baltimore Streetcar Museum, the odor of human waste and other signs of a sewage overflow were unmistakable.
“It was just pouring out of the manhole covers onto the road and into the Jones Falls and blasting out of the pipe,” said Alice Volpitta, water quality manager for Blue Water Baltimore.
As Volpitta spoke with The Brew yesterday evening at the city’s Sanitary Sewer Outfall #67 at 1901 Falls Road, the smelly stormwater was merely pooling on the road and little was flowing from the pipe.
But earlier in the day – at about 11 a.m., right after a strong, but brief, rainstorm – Volpitta had been in this spot and witnessed the cascade of sewage-saturated stormwater at what must have been peak-flow conditions.
The Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper Facebook live VIDEO she posted shows stormwater gushing up from the manhole covers near the bike trail and down the stream bank into the Jones Falls, which flows into Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.
“These overflows are chronic – this rain today was not a 100-year event or two-year event or even a five-year event,” Volpitta said. “They happen every time there’s a heavy rain. They are normal here in Baltimore and that’s really disturbing.”
Volpitta noted that earlier she had seen people driving, riding bicycles and jogging right through the sewage. She said people are so used to seeing water main breaks in Baltimore that they don’t realize flowing water in the streets is sometimes sewage mixed with rainwater.
“They see the toilet paper and tampons and think it’s just normal Baltimore trash,” she said. “But they’re actually coming in contact with untreated sewage and it’s a real health hazard.”
City officials confirmed that there were four sewage overflows yesterday that exceeded the 10,000 gallon state reporting threshold.
In addition to the Falls Road release that occurred above ground, three others occurred underground at West Garrison and Queensberry avenues, Charles and Lanvale streets and 428 East Preston Street.
“We do not have full data and will do a full release when we have that,” said Kurt Kocher, a spokesman for the Department of Public Works.
Kocher noted that the four sewage releases occurred at what are known as “structured overflows,” pipes designed by the city over 100 years ago to release water into the Jones Falls when excessive rainfall enters the mains.
Because Baltimore’s infrastructure is old and failing, city officials have said, these “structured overflows” are necessary to prevent sewage from backing up across the city, including into people’s homes.
But the result of this system has been annual releases millions of gallons of human waste into the Baltimore’s waterways and the harbor. In 2016 alone, the city released over 11 million gallons of sewage and had over 400 individual overflow events, according to Volpitta.
Under the terms of a 2002 federal consent decree that expired last year, Baltimore agreed to end the practice of releasing raw sewage into waterways through these structured outfalls.
After missing the deadline and re-negotiating the decree last year, the city agreed to a new timetable for fixes that would stop the overflows.
Repairing a design flaw at the Back River treatment plant that causes backups, Kocher noted, will mean “that these outfalls will be closed and that will be the end of the structured overflow releases.”
Asked when those repairs are expected to be completed, Kocher said: “2020.”