Raising a Stink: City Paper’s discovery of a recent sewer-leak spike along Greenspring Avenue highlights pollution’s persistence

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, May 7, 2014

Raw sewage, which is supposed to be carried to treatment plants via underground pipes, overflowed 16 times since last summer along a five-block stretch of Greenspring Avenue between Cold Spring Lane and Northern Parkway in Baltimore, according to the city’s reporting of such incidents. In all, these overflows spewed at least 12,000 gallons of nutrient-laden effluent, to make its way through storm drains and streams downhill into the nearby Jones Falls, the Baltimore Harbor, and ultimately, the Chesapeake Bay, where it contributes to algal blooms and fish kills.

While this is a regular occurrence citywide – in March, the city reported 68 such overflows, leaking an estimated 10,000 gallons of sewage – until recently it hasn’t been along this stretch of Greenspring Avenue, where there had been only seven reported overflows between 2005 and 2012.

Surely, community leaders in the area would have noticed the sudden sewage surge. After all, since 2002 the city has been working diligently under the terms of a court-mandated consent decree resolving a Clean Water Act lawsuit brought against it by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) to plug up its chronically leaky sewer system – a $900 million project which has spurred repeated hikes and water-and-sewer rates.

Turns out, though, they hadn’t.

City Councilwoman Sharon Green Middleton (D-6th District), who lives in the affected neighborhood, said in an April 23 phone interview that “there has not been a complaint from my association” about sewage leaks, and notes that sewage leaks “are never the conversation of the meetings of the community associations” in the area.

“I checked to see if there have been any constituent complaints to my office about this from these neighborhoods,” she adds, “and there have been none whatsoever since I’ve been in office.”

The same day, in response to City Paper‘s inquiries about sewage leaks in the area, Chikwe Njoku, president of Coldspring Community Association, wrote in an email that “I am not aware of any issues as it relates to sewage overflowing along Greenspring Ave.,” adding that while he understands “the Jones Falls often does receive sewage,” it “doesn’t have any direct impact on the neighborhood since homes are well away from it.”

The next morning, while awaiting a response about the matter from Blue Water Baltimore (BWB), the city’s main water-quality advocacy group, a City Paper reporter hoofed around in the woods northeast of the intersection at Greenspring Avenue and Cold Spring Lane, flushing out deer and ducking briars in an effort to find evidence of sewage contamination.

Rather than what was expected – a chronic sewer leak in these woods, dubbed in 2008 by the Jones Falls Watershed Association (since subsumed by BWB) as one of the city’s “Filthy Five,” responsible for releasing an estimated 21,600 gallons of raw sewage each day – we found something else: the unmistakable stench of sewage where a storm-drain outlet empties into a stream, turning its water opaque and gray.

After taking photographs, the reporter discovered that the easiest access to this sewage-contaminated storm-drain outfall is through a broken fence from the playgrounds of KIPP Harmony Academy, a public-charter elementary school, though it also can be reached from the athletic fields of the nearby Waldorf School. There were no signs announcing that the stream may be fouled by sewage, which contains bacteria, parasites, and viruses that can cause a variety of illnesses.

Back at City Paper‘s office, BWB’s emailed response was waiting: “We were not aware of the recent uptick in sewer overflows in this section of the Jones Falls,” wrote David Flores, BWB’s Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper.

“We had been monitoring a sewage-contaminated storm-water outfall located at the intersection of Greenspring Avenue and Cold Spring Lane for several years,” Flores continued, adding that the city’s Department of Public Works (DPW) “has since reported that the sewage leak at that location has been located and fixed.” Back in February 2012, Flores explained, BWB “investigated and reported [a sewer overflow] along Greenspring Avenue,” but the group “has since neither encountered nor received any citizen reports of sewer overflows at this location.”

Once City Paper emailed its photographs of apparently sewage-contaminated water coming out of the storm drain to foul the stream below KIPP Harmony Academy, BWB and DPW kicked into action, with each sending staff to investigate the matter.

While awaiting the results, BWB’s executive director, Halle Van der Gaag, commented that “this looks like a pretty big deal and I will be very interested in seeing it corrected and understand what has happened.”

Within hours, BWB’s water-quality manager, Alice Volpitta, had sampled the water, found it to have elevated indicators of sewage, and noted that “sewage fungus” was growing “in the culvert where the sewage is flowing.” The fungus, she explained, “is a collection of the bacterial cells found in the contaminated water, and it takes time for the ‘structure’ of the sewage fungus to form,” so its presence “is an indication that the problem has been on-going.”

First thing in the morning on April 25, DPW’s Joan White, a pollution-control analyst supervisor, emailed City Paper to explain that “my team found a choked sanitary line at 2917 Thorndale Ave. causing sewage to infiltrate the storm-drain behind KIPP Academy yesterday afternoon,” adding that the problem had been fixed.

Meanwhile, City Paper also asked EPA and MDE – the overseers of the consent decree under which Baltimore’s sewer system is being upgraded – to comment on the situation.

MDE spokesperson Jay Apperson explained that “although MDE is responsible for ensuring that the city remains in compliance with the consent decree, it is not our role to explain details of the sewer assessments, nor can we speculate on whether the root cause of overflows in a particular area has been determined.”

EPA spokesperson David Sternberg said that until Baltimore completes its sewer-system “rehabilitation projects to eliminate overflows, EPA will continue to assess penalties for such unpermitted discharges from the sanitary sewer system.”

While penalties for the 16 overflows in 2013 and 2014 along this stretch of Greenspring Avenue have yet to be assessed, earlier overflows in the area-most occurring in the early 2000s, when big overflows were prevalent-have prompted a total of $11,500 in penalties.

On April 30, City Paper brought Flores along to DPW’s offices to meet with two spokesmen – Kurt Kocher and Jeffrey Raymond – and Wazir Qadri, the department’s wastewater engineering division chief, to talk about the sewage issues along the five-block stretch of Greenspring Avenue and the contaminated outfall City Paper had photographed.

The conversation lasted an hour, and it’s not clear what prompted the sudden increase in sewage overflows since last summer – though Wazir noted “a lot of tree canopy in that area, so a lot of roots” underground could damage sewer pipes. Many of the 16 overflows, Wazir observed, occurred at Greenspring Avenue and Dupont Avenue, right in front of KIPP, and that was due to a faulty house connection on private property, which the owner eventually completed.

As for the stream being contaminated by sewage flowing out of the storm-drain system, Kocher said the overflow was not only coming from a house a half-mile uphill on Thorndale Avenue, as White had learned, but also from Pimlico Elementary/Middle School, which “had a break in their line, and the sewage was being pumped through a sump pump into the storm-drain system.”

Warning signs about the stream’s pollution problems, Kocher added, were soon to be installed, even before City Paper discovered the problem.

Qadri explained the big picture.

The city’s sewer system involves “approximately 1,300 to 1,400 miles” of pipes and “you cannot fix everything. It is going to be exorbitant to fix that. So even when we do all of the work [under the consent decree], we will still be rehabbing like 30 to 40 percent of the system.” Moving forward, he added,” we are going to be doing programs with TV inspection” – sending cameras up sewage pipes, to assess their condition – “every five to ten years so we can keep looking at the system, and how the system is doing, and then continue to improve on it, reduce our overflows” – a strategy that Flores sums up as “proactive asset management.”

The end result, says Flores, should be improved water quality in the harbor.

“As someone who has been conducting bacteria monitoring on the harbor since 2008,” he explains, “what we would hope to see after the consent-decree work is finished is lower levels of fecal coliform bacteria following wet weather.”

“This is going to be so much better,” Kocher says, once the consent-decree work and other pollution-abatement projects the city has been undertaking start to take hold. “These things don’t happen overnight,” he explains, “but these steps that we are taking-and have been taking, and are accelerating-really, they are going to pay off.”

In the meantime, community involvement in sewage-pollution awareness can also help find and stop more leaks more quickly. “If you see something, say something,” says Kocher, encouraging folks to call 311 if they see or smell a sewage-fouled stream or storm drain. For those interested in organized involvement, BWB’s Adopt-A-Stream and Outfall Screening Blitz programs offer a way for people to get trained in pollution detection and reporting work so that “we can use the force of our volunteer citizens to supplement the efforts of the city to find more illicit-discharge contamination more often,” says Flores.

On an everday basis, though, Raymond has advice for everyone who uses toilets – “poop, pee, and toilet paper only, no flushable wipes” – and sinks – “no grease, no fats.” What’s been happening along Greenspring Avenue since last summer illustrates his point: Of the 16 overflows, six were attributed to blockages caused by grease and rags. Doing as Raymond suggests could be the simplest way for anyone to help improve Baltimore’s water quality.

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