Sewage spill in Patapsco

City discharge: Downplaying pollution episode reinforces state, federal concerns about attitude.

September 14, 2000

THE CITY of Baltimore paid a $1 million fine less than a year ago to settle years of pollution violations from its water and sewage treatment plants. The idea: Resolve costly lawsuits and give the city a fresh start in addressing repeated problems at the Ashburton and Patapsco plants.

But when 10 million gallons of raw sewage gushed into Colgate Creek last weekend, city officials dismissed the massive pollution in typical fashion. No threat to drinking water, no environmental disaster, no need to notify the public, the familiar voices assured.

The state Department of the Environment, whose headquarters are close to the Dundalk area discharge, takes a distinctly different position. Fishing and crabbing are frequent in that creek, which should have been promptly posted with notice of contamination, it noted, because raw sewage can cause bacterial and viral infection.

Both the state agency and EPA express concern about the sewage dumping in the Patapsco River tributary. More citations and fines may be coming, they warn.

The city claims the discharge was necessary to avoid sewer backups in homes when a valve broke at a pumping station for the Back River wastewater plant. Yet the city system's history of problems and promises raises questions as to why better back-up solutions for the emergency were not available.

For too long, Baltimore has chosen to view the harbor and creeks as its primary backup for sewage overflow. When exceptional storms overload the system, as happened a year ago, that may be unavoidable.

But the city must act promptly to notify the public and state officials when such a discharge occurs, and take prompt remedial action. Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, city health commissioner for eight years, admits there is no written notification policy.

Refusing to acknowledge the potential impact of these large pollution incidents, and hiding it from the public, only confirms federal and state skepticism of Baltimore's pledges to protect the environment and public health.

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