Ebb And Flow

Guy Hollyday's public strolls help him keep an eye on the city's sewer system and give officials a nudge on sludge.

November 08, 2003|By Tom Dunkel | Tom Dunkel,SUN STAFF

There's a nip in the morning air. Trees have put on their Technicolor party clothes. Squirrels are growing love handles.

Autumn comes again and a man's thoughts invariably turn to ... raw sewage.

Well, this man's.

"There are about eight places in the city that are constantly flowing and this is one of them," says Guy Hollyday.

He is standing on the west side of Stony Run in Wyman Park, approximately 150 feet downstream from the University Parkway bridge, staring at a fat drainage pipe that protrudes like a cannon muzzle from the opposite bank. It is spewing ghoulish-gray effluent.

The offending pipe is one of about a dozen stops on a mile-and-a-half-long "Sewer Stroll" that Hollyday is leading through Wyman Park. He'll guide several such weekend tours through mid-November. Think of them as the perfect fall diversion for people who are looking to do something more socially responsible than pick apples.

Hollyday took note of this particular pipe two years ago. He figures it's discharging 15 gallons of untreated sewage a minute. Crews from the Department of Public Works have examined the pipe, stuck probes into the pipe, perhaps even tried laying healing hands on the pipe.

They still can't determine the source of the leak.

One thing those crew members haven't done is poke a video camera into the pipe, given it a Public Works colonoscopy, so to speak. Hollyday, the volunteer chairman of the Baltimore Sanitary Sewer Oversight Coalition, says he "cannot forgive them" for being so lax.

Clearly, Hollyday - a quiet, 74-year-old former German professor who's now a part-time acupuncturist - takes his sewage seriously.

Henry Thoreau gave himself the title "inspector of snowstorms" by way of justifying his frequent sojourns into the woods around Concord, Mass. Hollyday is a self-described "citizen-helper." He lives in Hampden with his wife, Pam, and walks the worn trails along the stream bank in Wyman Park about three times a week, ever on the lookout for fecal matter or misbehaving manhole covers.

"He's good at holding our feet to the fire," admits Bill Stack, chief of the Department of Public Works' water quality management section.

There are a handful of watershed associations in the city. All have scouts who patrol their respective sewer lines, but none, says Stack, "with the eye for detail and the regularity that Guy does."

Hollyday began this stroll by providing an overview of Baltimore sewer construction. The foundation was laid after the great fire of 1904. To save money, engineers capitalized on the city's hilly topography, devising a gravity-powered system in which storm-runoff pipes and sewage pipes follow the same high-to-low-ground paths as the city's primary creeks and streams.

There are more than 3,000 miles of pipe and 30,000 manhole covers. Like an aging football team, that venerable infrastructure is prone to fractures and ruptures. (Thus, the city will be spending some $900 million on Environmental Protection Agency-mandated upgrades.) Tree roots wreak havoc. Ground shifting stresses joints. Congealed waste gums up the works.

Sewage leaks happen.

Hollyday's Sewer Stroll amounts to a "greatest hits" of sewage mishaps. The woods are speckled with brick-and-cement manhole "stacks" the size of dog houses. That one, he says, blew the morning the Ravens won the Super Bowl. ("That was a geyser.") This one is corroding around the bottom like a decayed tooth in need of a root canal. ("That's gonna be real trouble one of these days.")

On the periphery of the park, near the intersection of 33rd Street and Beech Avenue, is a stately pine tree that regularly gets a fertilizer boost. By all rights, it should be 200 feet tall. A nearby sidewalk manhole has overflowed at least five times in recent years.

Last winter, sewage sludge pooled around the tree and snaked as far as the stop sign down at the corner. Hollyday has the photos to prove it. A month passed before the puddle disappeared.

Cleansing a wound

Hollyday is built long and lean like a walking stick, but came late to his hiking routine. About seven years ago, he offered to help a retired Hopkins professor who was leading a vigilante cleanup of Wyman Park. They hauled away junked tires and a rusty water heater and crippled shopping carts and plastic swimming pools.

It was like cleansing an infected wound. Drug dealers and paint sniffers drifted away. Joggers and dog walkers materialized. Hollyday discovered he enjoyed the silence and the sanctuary of his born-again neighborhood woods.

He made it his habit to walk here, always with a plastic litter bag in hand to pick up candy wrappers and bottles, sometimes carrying his City of Baltimore Sanitary Sewer Map No. 8, which shows the location of every manhole in the area.

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