City workers struggled last night to contain a huge overflow that has sent at least 30 million gallons of raw sewage pouring into Herring Run in Northeast Baltimore, the result of a blockage in a 3-foot-wide pipe.
Health warnings were posted yesterday along parts of a 6-mile stretch of the waterway, which flows into the Back River near Essex.
FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's editions of The Sun incorrectly described the relationship between Baltimore's storm sewer and sewage pipe systems. The systems are not connected except at two points in West Baltimore comprising about 1 percent of the system. The Sun regrets the error.
"This may be the biggest one in my 10 years," Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, the city health commissioner, said of the spill -- enough to fill 45 public swimming pools.
A passer-by discovered the backup under the Harford Road Bridge in Herring Run Park on Monday afternoon and notified the Herring Run Watershed Association, which in turn alerted the city Department of Public Works.
"It was quite a show," said Richard Hersey, executive director of the watershed association who saw the spillage spewing through a manhole under the bridge and into the stream.
After determining the magnitude of the spill, public works officials notified the city Health Department yesterday morning, which then posted warnings to avoid contact with the water. The signs will stay posted until the water tests safely. The state Department of the Environment also has been notified.
The spill occurs nearly a year after the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit that said Baltimore repeatedly violated the federal Clean Water Act by discharging more than 100 million gallons of sewage in the past six years. The settlement requires the city to make an estimated $940 million in repairs over 14 years -- costs that will be passed on to customers of the city water system. The city also agreed to pay a $600,000 fine.
The block in the pipe caused 20 million to 25 million gallons of raw sewage to pour into the stream over the 36 hours before public works crews installed pumps around the blockage to divert the overflow into the sewer, Beilenson said. The installation of the pumps slowed the seepage to 2 million gallons a day, he said. A third pump arrived yesterday to alleviate the remaining runover.
"The problem with this line is there's a lot of water in it, so it takes a lot of equipment to handle it," John Lancey, project supervisor for Godwin Pumps, based in Upper Marlboro, said at the spill site yesterday. The day's light snow made for unfavorable conditions for Lancey and the other dozen or so workers on site, but he said it wasn't hindering efforts.
"We'll be here until we get it fixed," he said. "We operate the pumps 24 hours a day." Lancey said the pumps would work through the night to try to alleviate the problem. He would also remain on site, as he did overnight Tuesday.
A heavy-duty vacuum is expected to arrive today to "bust loose" the clog in the pipe, said public works spokesman Kurt L. Kocher. "It is such a large mass that we have in this line. ... Hopefully, that will clear it."
Baltimore's wastewater treatment system is often overwhelmed during heavy rains. Storm sewers and sewage pipes are connected in Baltimore. In Baltimore County and elsewhere, those systems are separate.
Kocher said the blockage may have been caused by debris washed into the pipe in the aftermath of the region's record 28-inch snowfall and subsequent flooding and rain.
"It's probably directly related to that," he said. "Thirty million gallons is quite bad as far as the spills we've had in recent years. This is major. It's unusual."
"Nothing good can be said about it, but at least it's fortunate it's not occurring in the warmer months when it's more likely" children and pets would be playing by the stream, he said. But health officials worried that coliform bacteria in the water would stress wildlife.
Richard Giza, 54, who lives in the area, said he was very concerned about the spill.
"I think it's a pretty bad effect on the environment," Giza said. "The Herring Run stream does feed a lot of fish and animals, occasionally foxes and raccoons and possums. Also, it's a threat because I know that kids do get near the water and also people walk their dogs there, too."
Hersey of the Herring Run Watershed Association said he was distressed that the public had not been notified by the city Health Department until yesterday.
The environmental watchdog group and the city reached a legally binding consent decree last year, after an investigation of the water's E. coli levels by the watershed association. The consent decree requires the city to make public information about sewage spills.
In this case, Hersey said the city complied, but a time lag appeared to develop as word of the Herring Run spill traveled from the city Department of Public Works to the Health Department. "I just wish it was more prompt," Hersey said.
Kocher said public works officials followed standard procedure and thanked the association for its prompt reporting of the incident.
City health officials have warned residents in the past to stay away from urban streams because of runoff.