Sewage alarm like `a punch in the gut'

Officials describe efforts to halt 5 million-gallon spill at pumping station

May 06, 2002|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

Rick Harvey was in his Forest Hill home in Harford County packing for vacation when the Baltimore County public works dispatcher called him about 2:15 p.m. April 28.

An alarm had gone off at the Gunpowder sewage pumping station at the end of Dundawan Road in Perry Hall, the dispatcher said.

"It was like a punch in the gut," Harvey said. "It knocks the wind out of you."

When he arrived at the station about 3:30 p.m., Harvey, the county superintendent of utilities, found sewage burying the pumps and controls at the red brick station.

At the same time, 250,000 gallons of raw sewage per hour were automatically discharging into the Gunpowder Falls river.

Experts differ over how much damage the spill, ultimately 5 million gallons - equal to five times the amount of water kept in the National Aquarium's dolphin tank - will cause the waterway.

Since last year, when the state began tracking sewage discharges, Baltimore County has had 101. They range from a 5-gallon discharge to a 60,000-gallon spill into Ben's Run when a power failure occurred at the Randallstown pumping station.

The county estimates that the cost to clean up such spills ranges from $500 to mop up a manhole overflow to $300,000 to replace system piping, all paid from a $16 million annual fund.

When Harvey saw and smelled the mess in front of him, he called Bill Frankenfield, the chief of the county's bureau of utilities. Frankenfield's job was to alert the media - people had to be told not to swim in, fish in or eat fish from the river - and all state and county environmental agencies so they could post warning signs near the spill.

Harvey then assembled a 17-member crew that began the unpleasant task of trying to stop the flow of gallons upon gallons of raw sewage. If it wasn't stopped soon, it would rise and damage a critical electronic control panel.

Pumps at this station, which move sewage along a line that connects to the Back River Water Treatment Plant in Essex, are in a concrete box about 30 feet below ground level. When Harvey arrived, sewage had filled the box and was rising fast.

Workers began pumping the sewage out of the 36-year-old station, one of 106 in the county, and into a man-made pond that could be pumped out later. The workers used several three-and four-inch pumps, desperately trying to halt the flow.

"When you pull up the road and you see water flowing out the front door, you know it's bad," said Mark Thieff, a 19-year department veteran. "Everything was submerged under water."

The county then called a contractor to bring in bigger industrial pumps to speed up the process so workers could get to buried pumping controls. By 8 p.m. Sunday, when the contractors arrived with an 8-inch pump, the county crew had gotten rid of about 10 feet - one-third - of the sewage.

Meanwhile, thousands of gallons of sewage were being diverted into the river. Doing so stopped sewage from backing up and backing up - eventually flooding into the homes of residents along the line. It also gave workers the chance to stop the flow, pump out the station, examine the pumps and repair them.

"Any overflow, whether it's 60,000 gallons or 6 million gallons, is a bad overflow," said Phil Flaherty, a department crew chief. "The thing that goes through your head is, `We're going to get hell for this, we've got to stop it.'"

As the sewage subsided, workers could see that a 15-foot-tall shaft had broken off one of the four pumps and ruptured the line carrying vital hydraulic fluid to the other three pumps, incapacitating them.

Workers continued pumping at the station through the night and as the sewage was reduced, the crew waded into the mess, wearing rubber overalls, to shut down the flow of sewage into the station.

"It's not nice to work in, but you kind of get used to it," Flaherty said. "It's what you have to do."

Added Harvey: "Believe me, there was a lot of dedication out there."

The work crews, which at times reached 37, worked through Sunday night and Monday morning to get one of the station's four pumps working again.

"We knew if we could get one pump going, we could stop the overflow," Flaherty said.

They were successful about 7 a.m. Monday - 17 hours after the initial alert.

By 10:05 a.m., they were able to stop all of the overflow into Gunpowder.

"What a relief - because the guys were tired," Harvey said. "They had worked about 24 hours, and there were no breaks. It was a sloppy mess."

County officials don't know what caused the pump to break. The damage, including materials and labor, amounted to about $175,000, officials said.

"It's mechanical, and things are subject to fail," Frankenfield said. "It's like driving a car and it stops on you."

Environmental experts differ over how much damage the spill caused.

Joel E. Baker, a professor at the University of Maryland's Chesapeake Biological Laboratory on Solomons Island, believes the effects of the spill will dissipate.

"There is short-term damage, but the ecosystem is pretty resilient," Baker said. "A sewage spill is totally different from an oil spill, and people seem to equate the two."

The county plans to test the Gunpowder's water early this week. Results from a test the day after the spill are not available.

Kellogg J. Schwab, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, believes that repeated spills can be harmful. The introduction of nutrients such as nitrogen can cause an explosion of plant life, such as harmful algae, which can take over a stream.

"No longer can we say dilution is the solution," Schwab said.

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