No fast fix for fouled stream
Sewage seeping into city’s Chinquapin Run started 6 months ago
For the past six months, tens of thousands of gallons of sewage have seeped from an aged pipe directly into a Northeast Baltimore stream despite city efforts to identify and fix the problem — and it could be another three years before the leak is repaired, public works officials say.
Waste is polluting Chinquapin Run in a wooded area just upstream from its confluence with Herring Run near Morgan State University. Water that trickles over rocks beneath a Loch Raven Boulevard bridge turns cloudy and foul-smelling once it passes over a concrete slab that crosses the stream.
Pressed by water-quality advocates, state environmental regulators have called on the city to fix the pipe. State officials are also asking the city to explain why residents weren’t alerted that the contamination has continued for months.
City public works officials say it would be a waste of money to investigate and fix what they suspect are leaky joints in the antiquated sewage piping. Spokesman Jeffrey Raymond said “there is a chance” a $25 million to $30 million project to replace the main could be moved up in the city’s list of priorities. Work now is scheduled to begin next spring and be completed in 2019, he said.
“We’re redoing essentially an entire sewer system, and if we move up this project, that moves another project back down,” Raymond said. “We’re aware of this but were also aware of other needs, and it’s a balancing act. We want to move forward as fast as we can with all of these, but we have to use the resources available to us.”
The leak illustrates the challenges the city faces tackling $1.2 billion in court-ordered sewer repairs, deemed crucial to cleaning up the Inner Harbor and Chesapeake Bay, as the centuryold system crumbles. Baltimore is under a consent agreement with state and federal regulators that requires it to stop sewage leaks by 2030. The city missed a deadline, set in 2002, to have that work completed by the end of last year.
Water-quality advocates expressed little sympathy with the city’s plight.
“The public should be outraged that this sewage leak would just continue unabated ... without any effort from the city to try to even mitigate the impact,” said David Flores, the Baltimore Harbor Wa- terkeeper. “It’s hard to get beyond the fact that this has been ongoing since March.”
The city Department of Public Works first notified the public of the Chinquapin Run contamination in April, as required by law anytime at least 10,000 gallons of sewage enters a waterway. At that time, it said waste had been clouding the stream for three weeks and that it would be several more weeks before repairs would begin.
The 21-inch main was releasing 15 gallons of sewage every hour, officials said, meaning at least 15,000 gallons were estimated to have leaked into the Chinquapin by the time repair efforts began in May.
Sewage leaks are one of the biggest detriments to water quality in Baltimore. They pose health risks to anyone who comes in contact with the Inner Harbor or other urban waterways, and they also contribute to the poor health of rivers and creeks and the Chesapeake Bay downstream. Along with nitrogen fertilizer runoff from farms, sewage fuels algae blooms that create “dead zones” each summer in the bay, with little to no oxygen.
City public works officials considered the problem fixed May 26, after crews relined two sections of pipe to fill in cracks, according to a letter that Madeleine Driscoll, chief of the public works department’s office of asset management, sent to the Maryland Department of the Environment in July. MDE provided the letter to The Baltimore Sun.
But field workers for waterquality advocate Blue Water Baltimore continued to observe a cloudy, greenish or grayish tint to the water and bits of toilet paper floating downstream from the main, Flores said.
In the letter, Driscoll told state officials that water samples indicated the leak continued, and that engineers suspected that the sewage was seeping from “numerous joints along the pipeline.” The clay pipe was built in the 1920s, its three-foot sections connected and sealed together using ropes soaked in tar.
City officials say they don’t know how much sewage has been leaking into the stream, which eventually flows into the Back River in eastern Baltimore County. If it has continued at the same rate city officials disclosed in April, it would mean more than 60,000 gallons of untreated sewage has washed into the stream.
And there is no easy way to stop it. The public works department “has explored implementing short-term measures ... but does not feel that these are environmentally or fiscally responsible,” Driscoll wrote in July. With the pipe scheduled to be abandoned and sewage bypassed to a new main by 2021, officials told the state they would do more frequent water testing, install a permanent hazard sign beside the stream and provide annual updates on the status of plans for repairs.
In a letter to city public works director Rudy Chow this month, Lynn Buhl, director of MDE’s water management administration, said that wasn’t enough.
The state is demanding that the city follow state rules that it test the stream every three days, rather than monthly as Baltimore officials proposed; that it post a permanent sign about the contamination and notify the public via news releases, Facebook and Twitter; and that it justify and document the reasons an immediate fix is not feasible. Within 30 days of the letter, dated Sept. 9, MDE is asking that the city reveal its proposed timeline for the repairs.
For now, a plastic sign mounted to a wire stand declares a “temporary health warning” at the edge of the wooded area near Northwood Elementary School and through the trees on the bank of the stream. A permanent sign on the bank warns, “Urban streams are subject to pollutants and runoff” and “Contact with the water should be avoided.” It does not mention any specific risk.
“What reason do they have to not just put a sign out there that says very plainly, ‘There is an ongoing sewage leak, avoid contact’?” Flores said.
Though the leak is relatively small compared with others that are reported anytime a heavy rain inundates the sewer system — the city reported more than 400,000 gallons leaked during storms this month — the ongoing nature of the problem means a constant health risk, Flores said.