Baltimore: The City That Reeks

March 01, 2002|By Guy Hollyday

MAYOR MARTIN O'Malley is reportedly upset at the demands by federal regulators to repair the city's sewers immediately. Given that this may require big, painful sewer fee increases, his distress is understandable.

The Environmental Protection Agency last month offered Mr. O'Malley a settlement that would force the city to make substantial repairs to its aging sewers at a cost of about $900 million. That could mean a tripling of sewer bills for Baltimore residents.

Previous Baltimore administrations have kept our sewer fees among the lowest on the East Coast, which would seem to be beneficial in a city with high taxes. Not so. After a minimum of expenditures on repairs while circumventing EPA guidelines, our 3,000 miles of sewer lines are in deplorable condition.

Reports of sewage leaks in the city are received at the rate of nearly one every two days. Sometimes these are new leaks, and sometimes they are leaks that were never adequately fixed. Most of this sewage flows to our streams, where our kids play and our pets swim and drink. Do we have any idea how bad conditions are?

Ask the homeowners near recurrent sewage leaks about the stench they must live with. Or ask the members of our watershed associations who care for the quality of the water. Or ask people who use our parks, where there are so many streams.

Our streams don't just look bad, with all the plastic and trash that accumulates in them, they are also hazardous to our health. Do we want people to return to the city? We should fix our polluted waters.

How bad is it?

On a recent night during a walk near my home, there was a big overflow at 33rd Street and Chestnut Avenue. I was told this was related to the laying of new sewage pipe down the hill at the Remington Avenue bridge. (Last summer, while monitoring the water under the bridge, I noted wastewater cascading down from above, which I reported.)

In Wyman Park, just 200 feet up the street from the Remington Avenue bridge, is a sewer manhole that spewed sewage onto the sidewalk and grass a couple of years ago. It was repaired, but the waste remains. About 100 yards up the hiking trail from the bridge is a manhole on the bank of the stream. Last year, on the day the Ravens won the Super Bowl, it was gushing raw sewage on all sides. The sewage is still there.

And about 200 yards up the stream and adjacent to it is a manhole that is leaking. The Department of Public Works has twice attempted to fix the leak, but because it is situated on a steep embankment and leaking from the bottom, it has resisted repair.

And 200 yards up from there is still another manhole that spewed sewage into Stony Run for eight days two years ago while caring citizens pleaded for the Department of Public Works to fix it. It did.

This is the same manhole that overflowed a few years ago and that still leaks occasionally, in part because a tree is growing into it.

Up near the University Parkway bridge is a storm drainpipe from which fluid has been pouring that tests positive for ammonia, a tracer for human excrement. Is this the result of an illegal sewage connection, or is there some other explanation? We'll have to wait for lab tests to know. Meanwhile, the fluid pours forth.

Still another 100 yards upstream from there is a sewer stack behind the Carlyle Apartments that spewed sewage all of one night last summer. That one was repaired the next day.

Do I just live in the wrong part of town? Doubtful. Conditions are not much better elsewhere. And how could they be? We have kept our eyes closed for decades while we poured money into our wastewater treatment plants rather than repairing our sewer lines.

That was not wrong. But we shouldn't have ignored the miles of sewage lines leading to those treatment plants. How long will we continue to allow our streams to be carriers of disease?

Guy Hollyday is chairman of the Baltimore Sanitary Sewer Oversight Coalition, composed chiefly of representatives from the Herring Run, Gwynns Falls and Jones Falls watershed associations.

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