Sewage leak is termed `modest'

Officials have not found source of Stony Run spill

city posts warning signs

July 03, 2002|By Josh Mitchell | Josh Mitchell,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's top health official classified a sewage leak in North Baltimore's Stony Run as "modest" yesterday and said his department is taking measures to notify the public.

A drainpipe under University Parkway in Wyman Park has been leaking sewage into the creek sporadically since early spring, city officials acknowledged. The rate of flow was measured at 10 gallons per minute yesterday morning. Although that's small compared to other spills in the city, the sewage water pours into an area about 50 yards from where children frequently swim.

"I'm not downplaying this, but this is relatively modest contamination," Health Commissioner Dr. Peter L. Beilenson said.

Health officials posted warning signs near the site yesterday, saying signs erected two weeks ago had been torn down. The department is also considering handing out leaflets to residents in the area -- near the Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus, Beilenson said.

Beilenson cautioned residents to avoid the contaminated area, several hundred yards on either side of the drainpipe. Swimming in contaminated water can lead to gastrointestinal illnesses such as diarrhea and vomiting, or hepatitis A, Beilenson said.

Health officials tested the creek for contamination two weeks ago. Upstream from the leak, tests revealed a fecal coliform count of 7,000 organisms per 100 milliliters of water -- 35 times the bacteria level considered potentially dangerous. Directly below it, the count was 230, still over the danger level of 200.

While exceeding acceptable levels, the creek's fecal coliform count pales compared with contamination of other streams. In Colgate Creek in Southeast Baltimore, for example, tests in September 2000 revealed counts in the hundreds of thousands.

Disclosure of the leak comes as the city tries to repair its aging sewer system. In April the city signed a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice that requires Baltimore to eliminate sewage from waterways by 2016. Repairs are expected to cost $940 million.

Guy Hollyday, a community leader who monitors the Jones Falls, said he first noticed the leak in December. He then notified Department of Public Works officials, who had not been able to observe the leak until two weeks ago, a spokesman said. Still, they have consistently detected unusually high ammonia levels since January and tested to determine whether a leak was occurring.

Officials have not found the source of the sewage. They plan to place a video camera in the drain pipe this week in an effort to find where the sewage is entering.

In a visit to the site last week, one DPW official wrote in a report: "We're totally baffled. ... What is going on in the storm drain system?"

It's possible the sewage is coming from an illegal sewer hookup from a residence or business, DPW spokesman Robert H. Murrow said.

According to yesterday's measurement, at a constant rate the leak would amount to 14,400 gallons per day -- a "medium" sewage spill under Maryland Department of the Environment guidelines. However, officials said they believe the flow is not constant.

Under MDE guidelines, the city is required to report any sewage leak to the state department. A spokesman for the agency said officials did not know of the leak until a reporter asked about it on Monday. Murrow could not confirm whether his department notified MDE of before this week.

A Health Department test in 2000 ranked Stony Run as one of the cleanest waterways in the city.

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