Sewage spill spurs policy overhaul

Lack of public notice angers officials

September 13, 2000|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

Baltimore officials spent yesterday scrambling to put together a written policy to prevent another communication breakdown like the one that allowed millions of gallons of raw sewage to spill from a city pumping station into a Chesapeake Bay tributary with no warning to the public.

"The communication was not there," Kurt Kocher, spokesman for the Department of Public Works, said of the spill last weekend. "There are some errors that were made, and we're going to correct those errors."

The new policy requires that the head of the Bureau of Water and Wastewater be told of a spill and that the bureau chief, in turn, inform the director of public works. The director is then to tell the health commissioner and deputy mayor for operations. None of that happened last weekend.

Kocher said top public works officials were told Friday that there was a potential spill from the Dundalk station into Colgate Creek, but that the problem had been resolved that afternoon. The station feeds water to the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant.

The spill was caused when a 45-year-old valve broke at the Dundalk pumping station, officials said. As a result, 10.3 million gallons of raw sewage - enough to fill 15 city Department of Recreation and Parks swimming pools - poured into the creek between 3:20 p.m. Friday and 10:44 a.m. Saturday.

Public Works Director George L. Winfield said he was not told about what had happened at Colgate Creek until Monday afternoon, even though the spill occurred over a 19-hour period between Friday afternoon and Saturday morning.

"My immediate reaction was, `Why didn't someone tell me?'" said Winfield.

City Health Commissioner Peter L. Beilenson said he learned about the spill about the same time as Winfield.

"We clearly need to know in these cases, so we can let the mayor know and let the public know," he said. "We're lucky because this happened to be a relatively minor public health implication. However, if something major had come along, and we didn't get the word out, that would have been a problem."

The pumping station and Colgate Creek, on the city's southeastern edge, are in an industrial zone that houses the General Motors factory along Broening Highway and the Seagirt Marine Terminal.

People fish and crab along the creek where it enters the Patapsco River. The air around Colgate Creek yesterday was full of odors. A stale, stagnant smell of standing water hung in the air around Van Deman Street, near the top of the creek, where the buildings that house Chapter 451 of the Vietnam Veterans of America back up to the water.

"The creek's always got a bad odor," said Gleason Harris, Baltimore chapter president. "I haven't heard any complaints from our members, but that creek smells pretty bad, especially during the hot summer months. We do have kids who fish this river. Whether or not they eat them, I can't tell you."

City health officials posted warning notices along the creek yesterday and took water samples. Beilenson said he did not know how long the notices would be in place.

Mayor Martin O'Malley was in New York yesterday and could not be reached for comment. His spokesman, Tony White, said he had told the mayor about the spill, and that the mayor wasn't happy.

"I know the mayor is not pleased with a spillage of this magnitude and certainly not anything that would pose a public health threat," said White. "If it is determined there was a human error, I'm sure some strong disciplinary action would certainly be in order."

Gov. Parris N. Glendening issued a harsh rebuke to the agencies involved - for the spill and the lack of public notification. "He expects every agency at every level to ensure the public health and safety and that did not occur in this case," said Glendening spokesman Michael Morrill.

Morrill noted that the governor was not exempting the Maryland Department of the Environment from criticism.

"We expect that the agency will review its situation and determine how a spill of this magnitude was not monitored more carefully and why the public was not notified earlier," Morrill said.

Theresa Pierno, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the environmental group has written a letter to MDE, asking the agency to take steps to ensure such a discharge does not take place again.

"All I can say is I'm just outraged. I can't believe it," she said.

Kocher said the sewage should dissipate within 48 to 72 hours of entering the creek.

"Our view is, we want to know how serious a problem is. We want to make sure everybody is notified quickly," he said. "Nobody ever looked at this as, `Oh, Mother Nature will take care of this.'"

Sun staff writer Michael Dresser contributed to this article.

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