Herring Run overflow could result in fines

35 million-gallon spill might bring citation as high as $15,000 per day

February 28, 2003|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

What may be a record sewage spill for Baltimore entered its sixth day yesterday with workers still trying to cap a stubborn overflow, one that has sent 35 million gallons into the Herring Run and may result in fines under a year-old legal settlement with federal regulators.

Under the agreement, called a "consent order," the city agreed to spend more than $900 million in repairs to the sewer system over the next 14 years and to pay a $600,000 fine. In exchange, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Justice Department dropped their threat to sue the city.

"The consent order they're operating under essentially says that any spill over 1 million gallons can result in a citation or a fine as high as $15,000 per day for each day that the spill was a million or above," said Richard McIntire, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment. "But there is a caveat, or clause, in the consent decree that says that if there is an act that is beyond their reasonable control, like an act of nature, that they may not be held liable for such a thing."

Baltimore Department of Public Works spokesman Kurt Kocher said yesterday that officials are nearly certain the blockage in the Herring Run interceptor was caused by melting snow and heavy rains.

One theory is that swiftly moving water dislodged an upstream manhole cover, or otherwise disturbed an "access point" that protrudes above the stream and permits workers to perform maintenance on the pipe, he said. For much of its route, the 3-foot-wide sewer pipe traces the flow of the stream, and even lays on its bed under the water in some sections.

A major trunk line in the city's sewer system, the pipe collects wastewater and transports it to the Back River Sewage Treatment Plant.

"We've taken a look inside the pipe, and we know that there are large rocks that are blocking it," Kocher said.

"We're going to try to dislodge those, essentially by putting some pressure behind the rocks, or dragging," he said. "If the rocks cannot be dislodged in that way, then we will have to excavate that part of the line and repair it."

The city's sewer system was built in the early part of the 20th century and many of the pipes are more than 50 years old. It carries about 250 million gallons of waste through about 3,100 miles of pipes. The flow runs downhill to the Back River treatment facility and another one on the Patapsco River.

McIntire said that last week's inclement weather has caused nearly 100 major spills statewide. He also said the city has made some improvements in the way it handles major spills.

"Obviously, they made the pledge to appropriate the monies and to begin making improvements," McIntire said. "One of the things we have noticed is that they are more aware ... but their reaction times seem to vary."

"We need more information on how this blockage occurred and was there any particular way that this could have been prevented," he said.

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 DPW.

After determining the magnitude of the spill, public works officials notified the city Health Department on Wednesday morning, which then posted warnings to avoid contact with the water.

Richard Hersey, executive director of the Herring Run Watershed Association, said he hopes the city doesn't get fined for the spill.

"I think the city is so financially strapped that it cannot well afford a fine," Hersey said.

Unfortunately, Hersey said, he talked to a woman Wednesday who said she noticed the spill Saturday but didn't notify the association because she assumed someone else already had.

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