Unhealthy streams expose leaking sewers

Health hazard: City's plan to renovate aged system may bring relief, but more effort is needed.

March 12, 2001

SEEPING, persistent pollution of city waterways and park streams. Burst waterlines and sinkholes in downtown streets, raw sewage spills that flow into the Chesapeake Bay.

These are the kinds of problems that plague the century-old, deteriorated water and sewer systems that underlie Baltimore.

Will hundreds of millions of dollars in planned repairs and replacements be enough to repair this crumbling infrastructure? That's doubtful.

Even though the city plans $135 million in sewer improvements over the next six years and has spent some $100 million on it in the past decade, it will require an even steeper financial commitment to right the sewage wrongs that rage beneath city streets.

Chronic leaks and undetected breaks in the lines are the prime suspects in the fouling of Baltimore's major waterways with sewage bacteria that seriously violate public health standards.

As The Sun's Heather Dewar reported, more than 90 percent of monthly tests at various points along the Jones Falls, Gwynns Falls and Herring Run show alarmingly high levels of bacteria contamination. And results have not improved since monitoring began almost a decade ago.

Despite the obvious public health hazard, and hard bargaining with the Maryland Department of the Environment on fixing leaking, polluting sewer pipes, the city has failed to alert the public by posting adequate warning signs.

The health department's explanations range from a shortage of signs to "miscommunication," the same excuse used last summer when two malfunctions spilled 15 million gallons of raw sewage into streams that enter the bay.

City drinking water has not been affected by the chronic sewage seepage and episodic overflows. But sewage-tainted streams flow through neighborhoods and public parks, inviting residents to fish and wade in them. Water contaminated by sewage can make people sick if it gets into their mouths by fingers or splashing.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency expresses alarm, but says the Maryland environmental department has primary enforcement responsibility.

The state agency declines comment because of negotiations with the city over sewer improvements.

Promptly posting warning signs along stream banks is no solution. But it is surely the responsible thing to do when public health is at potential risk.

In the long run, it's time to look at replacing the entire system - the only solution that will stop the breaks and overflows. The public, and government enforcers, must insist on better results than those achieved in the past decade.

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