Workers stop 6 million-gallon sewage spill at Perry Hall

State fears wider problem in Baltimore County

April 30, 2002|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

A sewage leak that began at a Perry Hall pumping station Sunday afternoon was halted yesterday, but not before 6 million gallons of raw effluent poured into Gunpowder Falls and forced officials to warn against fishing and boating on a stretch of Baltimore County's most scenic river.

Any fish caught in the waters between Perry Hall and the Bird River since Sunday should be thrown away, officials said. The county also has posted signs along Gunpowder Falls warning against contact with the water until further notice.

"We're concerned from a public health standpoint," said Bill Clarke, program manager for the county Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management. "We're concerned about how it will affect the use of Baltimore County water."

State officials also were alarmed. According to the Maryland Department of the Environment, Baltimore County has had 17 sewer system overflows this year; that includes the one at Perry Hall. Most have been relatively minor - the largest had been 36,000 gallons - but state officials worry about possible problems with the county system.

During the past year, the state entered a consent decree with the town of LaVale in Allegany County, forcing it to improve its sewer system.

In February, a treatment plant in Hagerstown spilled 20 million gallons of sewage into Antietam Creek, a tributary of the Potomac River.

"We're not treating this as an isolated incident," said Richard J. McIntire, a spokesman for the Department of the Environment. "We're looking at these systems across the state."

The cause of the most recent spill is unknown. But county public works leaders speculate that a foreign object might have entered the system and broken one of the pumps, causing three other pumps to shut down.

The damage shut down the Perry Hall pumping station - one of the county's largest, which can treat 10 million gallons of effluent a day - from 2:30 p.m. Sunday until about 10 a.m. yesterday. "This is a very serious situation for us," said county Public Works Director Ed Adams. "This is not something we have in Baltimore County."

County environmental officials surveyed the damage yesterday morning and issued warnings to those who use the stretch of river from Perry Hall to the Bird River. Although the spill is not expected to harm wildlife, officials urged boaters and those who fish Gunpowder Falls to keep away from the water for at least a week.

Two county workers sampled the water for bacteria yesterday. Fishermen who use the waters were surprised at the spill.

"It kind of makes you go, `Whoa,'" said Dee Tochterman, who owns Tochterman's Fishing Tackle shop in Fells Point. "If it can be done there, where else can it get into the water?"

Recent rains will help dilute the effluent more quickly, Clarke said. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials said yesterday that they intend to look into the spill.

The county spill occurred a week after Baltimore City officials, under pressure from the federal government, agreed to pay $600,000 in fines and make more than $900 million in repairs to the city's aging sewer system.

The problems at the pumping station, which is at 9301 Dundawan Road, might have begun when something in the collection system caused a gear shaft to break off one of the pumps, county officials suggest. A report compiled by the state noted that two previous spills this year were caused by rags and tree roots that became trapped in collection systems.

The mechanical breakdown probably caused the three remaining pumps to malfunction, and sewage spewed from a pipe into Gunpowder Falls.

The Perry Hall plant, which serves homes as far west as Cockeysville, is one of three pumping stations through which sewage passes on its way to the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant.

By yesterday, two of the four pumps were working again. County officials estimated that 25 to 30 employees worked through the night trying to stem the flow of effluent. By 9 p.m. Sunday, county workers were able to divert about 450,000 gallons per hour to Baltimore's Jones Falls pumping station.

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