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Fresh Water, Foul Sewage

by Mark Reutter7:04 amMar 20, 20240

Century-old pipe, which carries the sewage of a million area residents, needs more emergency repairs

Another construction project at the Baltimore-owned Back River plant that has dragged on for years as costs climb

Above: One of the aging settling tanks at the Back River Waste Water Treatment Plant. (Mark Reutter)

In December 2021, Baltimore ratepayers were told that immediate emergency repairs were needed or else “catastrophic failure” could befall an underground pipeline that carries the sewage of 1.3 million city and county residents to the Back River Waste Water Treatment Plant.

Some $11 million was set aside for a project scheduled to take 11 months.

Now 27 months later, the Board of Estimates will be told today that more money is necessary lest “failure of this part of the system would block all the sewer flow to the plant, adversely affecting the public welfare,” according to the agenda item.

Which means that the spending board will approve two EWOs (extra work orders) that, together with an earlier cost overrun, will boost the contract cost by 32% and extend construction through September 2024.

Constant Headaches

The Back River plant has been a reliable source of backups, illegal sewage discharges and administrative snafus, most recently requiring $50 million to hire a Colorado company to manage the plant’s biosolids equipment.

Here are some facts of special interest to city residents, who will face a sharp increase in their water bills when the Scott administration sets new water and sewer rates come this July 1:

• The Baltimore Department of Public Works spent $430 million to build a state-of-the-art headworks plant in 2021, knowing that the pipe which conveyed much of the 130 million daily gallons of wastewater into the headworks was failing.

• Cracks and corrosion had been found by closed-circuit TV cameras, which was no surprise given that the 11-by-12-foot, brick-and-cobblestone pipe was built a century before in 1904.

• Because most of the damage took place at the pipe’s crown (caused by decades of gasses emitted by raw sewage), the structure smelled bad, but didn’t noticeably leak, delaying the day of reckoning.

A portion of the 1904 brick-and-cobblestone sewer main that's covered with a PVC plastic liner. BELOW: Mayor Brandon Scott, City Council President Nick Mosby and U.S. Senator Ben Cardin gather for the May 10, 2021 ribbon cutting for the Headworks Porject. (DPW)

A portion of the original brick-and-cobblestone pipe lined with a layer of white PVC plastic. BELOW: Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, City Council President Nick Mosby and others gather for the May 10, 2021 ribbon cutting at the Headworks Project. Scott and Mosby will vote today on the latest cost overrun. (Ulliman Schutte, DPW Facebook)

Officials gather for the May 10 ribbon-cutting of the nearly completed Headworks Project at the Back River Sewage Treatment Plant. (DPW Facebook)

After patching up some of the underground structure, Ulliman Schutte informed DPW last summer that a fuller examination showed that 532 linear feet of pipe had between a 2-inch and 12-inch (90%) wall loss.

DPW’s project engineer, KCI Technologies, approved the $2,654,360 cost overrun requested by Ulliman Schutte to install a PVC (polyvinyl chloride) liner around the original wall. Much of the expense involved temporarily diverting sewage from the section of pipe undergoing resurfacing.

This cost, along with $476,043 needed to restore vent chambers, is what’s being approved today by the BOE.

The board is also set to award $20.7 million to Anchor Construction for sewer replacements in Roland Park and $6.4 million to Spiniello Companies to reline sewers and clean manholes in the Glen Avenue district of northwest Baltimore.

Asking $2 million more for the Roland Park contract ($22,733,000 versus $20,712,000), Spiniello lost out to Anchor.

Spiniello was the only bidder on the Glen Avenue job, which will be ratified despite being 28% above the city engineer’s estimate of $5 million, according to the board’s agenda.

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