Bursting pipes, exploding gas lines Huge sinkhole downtown: Baltimore must spend more to maintain its aging sewerage system and 1,800 miles of water pipes.

November 12, 1997

A MAJOR WATER MAIN break in May that left a 30-foot crater in the middle of Homewood Avenue prompted Public Works Director George G. Balog to say he hadn't seen a similar occurrence in Baltimore in 28 years.

He wanted to reassure a worried public that an infrastructure failure of this size was a very rare event.

Oh yeah?

Less than six months later, there's an even bigger hole, where Park Avenue and Franklin Street connect smack in the middle of downtown Baltimore.

Now people are wondering if their neighborhood will be next.

May's burst water pipe caused flooding and the subsequent razing of more than a dozen decrepit East Baltimore houses that were damaged. The city was careful to avoid taking responsibility, much to the anger of displaced residents.

Once again, Baltimore City officials are in a similar situation. They are carefully investigating what caused the giant sinkhole at Park and Franklin.

They do not want to admit legal liability -- which can be quite costly -- if some private-sector entity is to blame. Any of the gas, steam or water pipes that belong to different companies could have set off the chain of events that led to Saturday's early-morning explosion and intense fire.

"I'm virtually certain it was not our problem," said James J. Abromitis, the president of Trigen Energy Baltimore, which owns the steam lines.

"We were the victims of this occurrence," said spokesman Art Slusark of the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., whose gas line ignited and spewed flames a spectacular 40 feet in the air for five hours.

Mr. Balog says he does not know if a hole in a sewer line was there before or after the explosion. "Will we have an answer? I'm not sure," he said.

Well, he can be sure about this: The age of the cast-iron pipes underneath Baltimore, many more than a half-century old, means what once served as preventive maintenance no longer suffices.

Mr. Balog takes pride in having "quadrupled" efforts to improve underground pipes during his nine years as public works director. But only five to 10 miles of the city's 1,800 miles of water pipes -- one-half of one percent -- is renovated each year.

At that rate, Mr. Balog's maintenance-improvement program will be completed in about 200 years.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke will have to be more aggressive in finding funds to replace and repair water pipes and sewerage lines before a worse tragedy occurs. It is a blessing that no serious injury or loss of life occurred in the explosion Saturday.

An older American city such as Baltimore cannot afford to add failing infrastructure to its long list of urban problems that cause many families to flee to the suburbs.

As important as new hotels and improved schools is the peace of mind that comes from knowing the street you're driving on is not about to collapse.

Pub Date: 11/12/97

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