Stream pollution traced to sewage

Dunloggin discovery follows months of resident complaints

May 31, 2000|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

People in the Ellicott City neighborhood of Dunlogginsuspected for months that sewage was seeping into the stream behind their homes, but county officials never could find a problem.

Until Friday night. That's when St. John'sCommunity Association President LynneBerglingand her husband walked down the Plumtreestreambed and tracked a swath of sewage to a pipe about 120 feet to the west.

Howard County workers arrived that evening and returned Saturday to fix the leak.

Yesterday, county employees and elected officials - from County Executive James N. Robey to state Sen. Christopher J. McCabe - gathered by the stream with residents and assured them that area sewage pipes would be closely monitored.

It's been a frustrating struggle for people in this quiet, tree-lined neighborhood, who said they had long smelled - and sometimes seen - sewage in and around the stream.

One resident believed the stream was to blame for the E. coli bacteria that made her three children ill last year after floodwater flowed into their yard.

The bacteria, which are most commonly found in meat but can also live in fecal matter, kill about 60 people nationwide each year.

According to a county Health Department report in January, health officials did not consider the stream to be the likely source of the E. coli bacteria.

Bergling said the lesson of the months-long affair is simple: "If people say they're smelling sewage, chances are, they are."

Bob Beringer, chief of the county bureau of utilities, said workers had often checked the area since October, but had focused on an 18-inch main on the east side of the stream. Sewage from businesses, as well as houses, feeds into that pipe.

But the leak was in a manhole over an 8-inch sanitary sewer pipe that was blocked with grease. Part of the manhole had shifted, and the seal wasn't watertight, Beringer said. Sewage leaked because the pipe was blocked.

It's rare for the 2,500-pound manholes to be jarred out of place, he said. He doesn't think his workers were negligent for not checking that pipe, one of about 1,000 in the Plumtree stream's watershed.

But Beringer added: "Would I say that [our investigation] was too focused? Yup. We should have expanded that. That's hindsight."

He's not sure how much sewage seeped out of the manhole - working its way toward the stream by way of a 300-foot channel - or how long it had been escaping from the pipe.

But Beringer said that a blockage in the pipe two years ago backed sewage into people's houses rather than into the stream.

When workers inspected the pipe in May 1999, both it and the manhole were fine, Beringer said.

It's possible that floods in September pushed a tree into the manhole, shifting it and breaking the seal, he said.

On Saturday, county workers flushed the blocked pipe and put lime over the route the sewage traveled. They will repair the manhole's broken seal later.

Utility workers will also inspect the 1,000 pipes in the stream's watershed, likely within a month, Beringer said.

"We'll be able to give that system a clean bill of health or come up with a good list of work to be done," he said.

County officials are warning people to stay out of the stream and to wash up carefully if they come into contact with the water. Although weeds in the marshes near the Plumtree kept much of the sewage out of the stream, Beringer said, officials are assuming that the water is contaminated.

Michelle Mason, whose house backs up to the stream, said neighbors are angry that county officials didn't find the source of the sewage leak earlier. If workers walked down the stream as the community association president did, "they would have found it," she said.

"It should have been resolved a long time ago," said Mason, a member of the community association's new stream committee.

Beringer said: "The fact that that occurred in an area that we have been in, and in, and in - I share residents' frustration."

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