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Fresh Water, Foul Sewage

by Mark Reutter1:22 pmDec 14, 20210

To avoid catastrophic failure, Baltimore sewer line needs $11 million in emergency repairs

The Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant got a $430 million “headworks” expansion, but documents reveal the east end of a century-old pipe leading to it is falling apart

Above: Mayor Brandon Scott, City Council President Nick Mosby, Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford and U.S. Senator Ben Cardin gather for the May 10 ribbon cutting of the nearly completed Headworks Project. (DPW Facebook)

Last May, Mayor Brandon Scott and Council President Nick Mosby hailed the $430 million expansion of Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant’s headworks as the key to ending raw sewage overflows and complying with the 1972 Clean Water Act.

“Headworks is a game changer for the Baltimore region,” the mayor declared as he stood with other dignitaries at the Dundalk facility.

Tomorrow, Scott and Mosby will be asked to approve emergency funding to fix a badly deteriorated, 117-year-old pipe that, feeding the new headworks, threatens to disrupt the city’s costly improvements.

12/15/21 UPDATE: Contract approved, DPW reiterates threat of a “catastrophic failure

Ulliman Schutte Construction will be awarded a $10.7 million “emergency procurement” to start repairs to the pipe, with another $300,000 going to KCI Technologies to provide inspection services.

The costs will be evenly split between Baltimore City, which owns the system, and Baltimore County, which uses it to treat its sewage.

According to material submitted to the Board of Estimates and reviewed by The Brew, a portion of the 11-by-12-foot, brick-lined pipe – one of two that run under Eastern Avenue from President Street at the Inner Harbor to the sewage plant in Dundalk – “is failing” and “requires immediate attention.”

The immediate point of failure was not identified except that is just west of the treatment plant at 8201 Eastern Avenue.

As the trunkline that carries the wastewater of 1.3 million customers in the eastern city and county, “any failure of this pipe will cause sewer overflows into the environment” and “adversely affect the public welfare,” the documents say.

Choke Point

Backed-up effluent flowing into residential basements as well as the Jones Falls and Inner Harbor has been a decades-old problem.

Climate change has intensified the impact with heavier rainfall that infiltrates and sometimes overwhelms the sewer system.

The headworks project, one of the most costly public works in city history, has nearly doubled the capacity of the Back River plant to absorb heavy inflows during storm events.

But the system’s choke point remains the Eastern Avenue pipes, which were constructed in 1904 and have not undergone significant repairs since then.

On a daily basis, the arched tunnels carries more than 120 million gallons of effluent to the Back River plant – an amount that can easily triple during a major storm surge.

Under its original design, which has not been altered, sewage water is kept behind an underground dam at the entrance of the treatment plant until the plant is able to treat it.

A tank at the Back River Treatment Plant that settles dirt and debris that comes along with Baltimore's sewage. (Mark Reutter)

A tank at the Back River Treatment Plant that settles the dirt and debris that comes along with the sewage of 1.3 million customers. (Mark Reutter)

2022 Deadline

During storm events, the effluent will back up for miles under Eastern Avenue, sometimes gathering so much pressure that it erupts from manhole covers in the street or gushes out of basement toilets, sometimes miles away.

As part of a 2002 consent decree signed by Mayor Martin O’Malley with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), the city promised to end raw sewage overflows by 2012.

Failing to meet that deadline, the city won various extensions and finally secured a modified agreement requiring that “structured” sewage overflows, at places like lower Falls Road near the Baltimore Streetcar Museum, end by July 2022.

The added capacity of the headworks was designed to reduce sewage overflows by 80%, but the improved system will only function as well as the Eastern Avenue tunnels remain open and in decent repair.

“Not a casual repair”

Because of sediment build-up, the EPA and MDE required the city to inspect and clean the tunnels as part of the consent decree.

A $8.3 million clean-out was completed in July 2018, and since then, a closed-circuit TV camera was floated down the tunnels to detect cracks and cave-ins.

The video footage showed that “the portion of the [tunnel] in the vicinity of the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant is failing,” the Scott administration was told, thus requiring tomorrow’s emergency contract.

The work, expected to take 11 months, will require the reconstruction of a very old and potentially hazardous tunnel. “This is not a casual repair,” a former top Department of Public Works official cautioned today.

“This tunnel is pretty deep. Fixing it will be complicated and dangerous, and will probably require digging a shaft and creating a cofferdam to stop the flow. Remember, the contractor will be working in the same space where tens of millions of gallons of sewage come through to the treatment plant.”


Baltimore lauds its Back River treatment plant in 1926, when its sewer system was nearly brand new. (Department of Public Works)

Baltimore lauds the Back River facility in 1926 when the treatment system was practically new. (Baltimore DPW)

This is not the first time that proper maintenance of Baltimore’s sewage infrastructure has come under question.

Earlier this year, MDE cited the city for dumping as much as 130 million gallons of partly-treated sewage daily into the Chesapeake Bay from its Back River and Patapsco plants, the latter treating sewage from the western side of the city and county.

The illegal discharges were first uncovered by Blue Water Baltimore, an environmental group that found high levels of bacteria in harbor water near the effluent pipes of the Patapsco plant.

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