Heavy rains force sewage into Patapsco River

Over 2 million gallons entered near Elkridge

March 02, 2003|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

More than 2 million gallons of raw sewage spilled into the Patapsco River near Elkridge during last weekend's heavy rains, one of several large area spills prompted by the downpour on top of 28 inches of snow.

Because the spill was caused by the deluge, there was no way to stop the overflow. "There's no obstacle to pump around," said Howard County bureau of utilities chief Robert M. Beringer.

The effluent surged for 30 hours through a manhole on the Howard-Anne Arundel County line at Furnace Avenue and Race Road in Patapsco Valley State Park, near a commercial area of Elkridge, but it was far from the only spill - or the largest - the storms produced.

A blocked sewer line dumped an estimated 30 million gallons into Herring Run in Northeast Baltimore over several days, and the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission reported 2.8 million gallons spilled in the Washington area into the Patuxent and Anacostia rivers, Broad Creek and Anacostia Creek.

Beringer said the storm water leaked into the 54-inch diameter Patapsco River sewer line, which is owned by Baltimore County, and filled it to capacity. A smaller line draining Howard County sewage into the big interceptor could not push through and so backed up into the manhole, leaking directly into the river.

The system drains sewage from western Baltimore County, northern Howard County and northern Anne Arundel County to the city-owned pumping station and then goes to the Patapsco Wastewater Treatment Plan.

Although these huge storm-driven spills seem unstoppable, Andrew Fellows, Chesapeake program director of the nonprofit Clean Water Action, said they bolster the need for $4.3 billion worth of replacements and upgrades in the Baltimore metropolitan-area sewer system identified by a state task force under former Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

"It is a structural issue. The longer we wait [to make repairs], the worse it's going to be," Fellows said. Baltimore's underground pipes are often nearly 100 years old, and larger, newer pipes are needed, as well as improvements at the area's big wastewater treatment plants.

The size of the spills also bothered local environmentalists.

"You don't have to be a member of the Sierra Club to be bothered by that. It's distressing to everyone," said Nancy Davis, a Sierra Club member in Howard County.

Beringer said another, much smaller spill occurred the same weekend at the county's treatment plant in Savage, when an operator opened a valve too quickly, allowing about 45,000 gallons of effluent to spill onto the ground and be washed into the Little Patuxent River.

Beringer said that although the sanitary sewer system is separate from storm water runoff facilities, in heavy storms water leaks into the sewer system in various ways. It comes through small holes in manhole covers, and through holes and cracks in the underground pipes.

He said county workers monitored the overflow for the entire 30 hours and posted warnings along the river.

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