Sewage spills not isolated, study suggests

Balto. County third in Md. in amount of overflows

`Paying the price now'

Discharges attributed to ailing treatment plants

May 27, 2002|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

When Baltimore County wrestled recently with the cleanup of raw sewage spills that polluted two waterways within a week, county officials called the overflows "isolated" incidents.

But a state report on sewage systems and figures on spills supplied by the county contradict that.

In all, there were 102 spills in the past five years, according to county figures. The 5.2 million gallons of sewage spilled in the two recent instances -- the first at Gunpowder Falls on April 28, the second at School House Cove and Bear Creek on May 5 -- nearly equaled the county's annual average of 6 million gallons for the past five years, according to the county.

The state report, delivered in December to the Maryland General Assembly by a panel appointed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening, ranked Baltimore City second and Baltimore County third in the number of sewage system overflows for 2000, the year studied. The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, which serves Prince George's and Montgomery counties, was first.

The cost to stop these spills is enormous.

Upkeep and repair of sewage systems in Maryland during the next 20 years is expected to cost $4.3 billion, the report said. That money would be used to prevent the pollution of Maryland waterways, which absorbed 52 million gallons of raw sewage in 2000.

Experts blame the spills mainly on aging, poorly designed sewage pipes or systems that haven't kept up with growing populations.

"The reason we're doing this [report] is because we haven't addressed water infrastructure for decades, and we're paying the price now," said Andrew Fellows, Chesapeake program manager for Clean Water Action Inc., and one of the 13 members of the Governor's Task Force for Upgrading Sewage Systems. The panel is composed of government officials and environmentalists.

Baltimore County will need to spend $400 million to upgrade its sewage system, including $197.4 million to make repairs to reduce overflows. Another $203 million will be needed to meet the demands of the county's increasing population.

"The Baltimore County spills showed that this is not just a city problem," Fellows said. "It's all over."

In Anne Arundel County, the estimated cost of upgrading the sewage system is $308 million, according to the report, which will be used by the General Assembly to assess sewage projects in Maryland.

This month, Anne Arundel County had a 50,000-gallon sewage and waste water spill around the headwaters of Rock Creek in Pasadena. Officials suspect vandals blocked a sewer line by pouring grease into the system.

Anne Arundel needs $157.5 million to improve its treatment plant, $80.8 million to prevent spills, and $70.7 million to handle growth, according to the report.

"A lot of what is at issue is the aging infrastructure," said Ronald E. Bowen, Anne Arundel's public works director.

The report also estimates that:

In Howard County, system improvements, mainly to the wastewater treatment plant, will cost $121 million. An estimated $27.8 million is needed for growth because the county has a newer system.

In Harford County, improvements were listed at $67 million. More than half of that money, $35 million, will be needed to handle future population growth.

In Carroll County, system repairs will cost $42 million with $21.9 million needed for the treatment plant and $19.5 million for county growth.

The task force was formed in March 2001 after large and highly publicized sewage spills in Baltimore and Western Maryland.

Safe Waterways in Maryland and the Maryland Association of Counties urged the governor to create the panel as part of his Smart Growth initiative. The counties argued that for Smart Growth to be successful, Maryland would need the proper sewage infrastructure.

The cost figures in the report are based on surveys that state and federal agencies conducted with county governments.

Because the report does not document all of Maryland's sewage problems, state environmentalists are assessing sewage systems statewide, starting with the larger ones such as Baltimore County's.

The state will focus on "particularly the larger systems," said Richard J. McIntire, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment. "The ones that would be the largest offenders."

Baltimore County's recent spill on the Gunpowder Falls lasted 20 hours and dumped 5 million gallons of raw sewage into the river, forcing officials to warn against fishing and boating on a stretch of the county's most scenic waterway. County officials blamed the spill on a broken pump.

A week later, 190,000 gallons of raw sewage poured into the School House Cove and Bear Creek in Dundalk. That spill was blamed on a malfunctioning pumping station. It also caused officials to issue a warning against fishing and boating.

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