Public not told of spill for days

10.3 million gallons of city sewage ran into bay tributary

State could take action

September 12, 2000|By Michael Dresser and Heather Dewar | Michael Dresser and Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

A Baltimore pumping station discharged 10.3 million gallons of untreated sewage into a Chesapeake Bay tributary over the weekend, and city officials admitted yesterday that they failed to notify the public or even the mayor.

City Health Commissioner Peter L. Beilenson issued a health warning to Dundalk area residents near Colgate Creek in Southeast Baltimore shortly after he was informed about the discharge yesterday afternoon - more than three days after it began.

Under the warning, all water activity in the creek - such as fishing, crabbing or swimming - is banned until further notice. Beilenson said the spill has not affected drinking water in the area.

Richard McIntire, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment, said the state views the discharge as a serious matter and could take enforcement action against the city. Although the creek is in an industrial area, McIntire said some people fish and crab in the waters.

"It's a major [sewer] line in the largest city in the state so it would have to be a considered a major spill," McIntire said.

Kurt Kocher, spokesman for the Baltimore Department of Public Works, said the raw sewage was dumped into the creek after a 45-year-old valve broke Friday at the city-owned Dundalk pumping station, which feeds sewage to the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant.

The sewage flow began about 3:20 p.m. Friday and wasn't stopped until about 10:44 Saturday morning, officials said.

Kocher said sewage was diverted to the creek, which runs between the Dundalk and Seagirt marine terminals on its way to the Patapsco River and the bay, in order to avoid a backup that could have affected homes and businesses in the Dundalk area.

"We did what we had to do to protect the public health," Kocher said.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials said yesterday they were not familiar with the circumstances of Friday's spill, but they stressed that routine maintenance problems should not lead to large sewage spills.

"They should be able to do other things in terms of diverting the flow," said Mike Burke, director of government relations for EPA's mid-Atlantic region. "While it's sometimes understandable to have overflow events during heavy rains, it's not acceptable to have sewage overflows whenever there's equipment failure."

George Winfield, the city's director of public works, said he learned about the problem late Friday but did not think it necessary to notify the public.

"We did not feel that the impact was going to be as great as if it was discharged into a residential area," he said.

Winfield said that as of late yesterday, he had not notified the office of Mayor Martin O'Malley, who was traveling in Ireland. "That was a lapse in communications on the part of the Department of Public Works," he said.

O'Malley spokesman Tony White, who learned about the discharge from a reporter, said the mayor was traveling and could not be reached for comment. But he predicted his boss would not be pleased.

Beilenson said subordinates learned about the problem Friday but had decided that posting a health warning was not necessary. He said he was not told of their decision.

"I'm disturbed at how it was handled within our department," Beilenson said.

Kocher played down the importance of the discharge, saying it was "not some kind of environmental disaster." He noted that 10 million gallons is a small fraction of the 240 million gallons of wastewater the city treats every day.

"It's unpleasant, it's unhealthy, but it will take care of itself relatively quickly," Kocher said. "This is not a body of water where people are fishing or boating."

But McIntire, whose department has its headquarters near the site, said the area should have been posted with notice of the discharge, which has the potential to cause viral and bacterial contamination.

"This creek is fished and crabbed quite a bit," he said.

McIntire said he was aware of no fish kills as a result of the discharge. But untreated sewage is rich in nitrogen, the principal pollutant endangering the bay.

In 1997, the EPA sued the city over problems at the city's Patapsco sewage treatment plant and at a water treatment plant. The lawsuit was settled with a series of pledges from the city to improve its operations.

Burke said yesterday that the EPA "continues to have concerns" about maintenance and day-to-day operations at both of the city's sewage treatment plants. He said sewage spills are a violation of the city's EPA permit.

Under the Clean Water Act, Burke said, the EPA could issue the city a warning letter or impose fines of up to $27,500 per violation per day.

McIntire said Friday's spill was much bigger than those the state agency routinely deals with.

Winfield said last night - more than 48 hours after the discharge had ended - that he had not yet received a report from bureau chief Amar Sokhey on what had gone wrong. "I'm not sure if it's a temporary fix," he said. "I don't know the extent of the problem."

Winfield said Sokhey was having a hard time getting calls returned by the workers who handled the discharge over the weekend.

The latest discharge follows an incident last September when 24 million gallons of raw sewage spilled from a pumping station in Hampden into the Inner Harbor. That spill took place in the midst of heavy rainfall from a tropical storm, which flooded the Hampden station.

Theresa Pierno, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the city seems to have developed a "habit" of dumping sewage into the harbor. "It's a policy and a procedure that they're doing and its got to stop," Pierno said.

Sun staff writer Rafael Alvarez contributed to this article.

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