Falling Waters: One longtime polluter is cleaning up, but the Jones Falls’ troubles are far from over

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Feb. 4, 2004

When City Paper literally stumbled upon Hollins Organic Products in December (“Untestable Waters,” Dec. 24, 2003), the three-acre mulch-making operation in Baltimore County’s Bare Hills section was polluting an adjacent stream with black, fusty runoff from its towering piles of compost. The unnamed stream, which runs through city-owned Robert E. Lee Park, was opaque and dark from the point where Hollins Organic discharge entered it, and its sediments were stained from the discoloration.

Hollins Organic owner Doug Hollins told City Paper it was a new problem, brought on by 2003’s unusually wet weather, and that he was in the midst of designing a permanent fix to keep the compost-laden water from overflowing the site’s containment pond and spoiling the stream.

In a Jan. 29 interview, though, Hollins changed his tune after he was informed that the Baltimore County permit file for Hollins Organic shows a 10-year history of stream pollution, despite a permit requirement that the facility “shall not be operated in such a manner as to create water pollution.”

The overflows from the site, the file makes clear, are believed to be brought on by storm events, but the record rains of 2003 were by no means unique in the documented history of Hollins Organic’s sullying of the stream. Community complaints and inspection reports about problems at the site fill the file, with county visits dating back a decade. By that time, the business had already been operating there for 12 years.

“We probably should have done this years ago,” Hollins concedes, referring to the solution he hopes to have installed by early March: a large cement tank to hold site runoff, designed with a mechanism that automatically sprays its contents back onto the mulch piles when it fills to a certain level. “In the long term, it’s going to be a better process,” he predicts, adding, “I do take this stuff very seriously. We will do whatever it takes to make sure this issue is solved.”

In the big picture, Hollins Organic’s faulty runoff containment may seem insignificant. But the unnamed tributary it despoils tumbles downhill for about half a mile before emptying into the Jones Falls, the heir of more than 350 years of human-generated runoff, which rolls along in all of its nutrient-laden, sediment-bearing glory, bound for Lake Roland, then down through the city to the Inner Harbor, the Patapsco River, and the Chesapeake Bay. The Hollins Organic problem is yet another thread in the much larger story of what water-quality experts call “loads to the system”: erosion, animal waste, leaky septic systems and sewers, the runoff from roads, buildings, farms, and parking lots–all of them bringing more water-borne baggage for the Jones Falls to handle.

The efforts of government and citizens to reduce this load have been underway since at least 1972, when the federal Clean Water Act was passed, establishing rules intended to stem pollution. Slow, steady implementation of laws and better management choices have led to some improvements in some upstream parts of the Jones Falls, but, ironically, as the river approaches the relative idyll of Robert E. Lee Park, its water quickly degrades. That’s because the park’s main attraction, Lake Roland, is the common catch basin for every source of upstream water pollution, from Pikesville east to Towson.

Lake Roland, in essence, is like Hollins Organic’s sediment pond–instead of a small composting yard, though, Lake Roland handles the drainage for 33 square miles of suburban watershed. Like Hollins Organic’s pond, Lake Roland over the years has been much studied and lightly managed. Both hold back pollution from the Chesapeake Bay, and both do so less effectively when it rains.

But, whereas Hollins Organic is on track to stopper up its leaky catch-basin, there are no plans to keep Lake Roland from continuing to do what it’s done since it ceased being an active reservoir in 1915–filling in with whatever pollutants drop out of the Falls’ water as it settles behind the dam. The lake’s capacity to trap pollutants before the river crests over the dam, en route to the city, depends on plugging up upstream sources–like Hollins Organic. It’s a never-ending task that, despite years of talk, has only just begun.

The first visit to Hollins Organic Products by the Baltimore County Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management (DEPRM), back in January 1993, found “an open dump consisting of old 55 gallon drums, 275 gallon oil tanks, pressure treated lumber, metal pipes, etc., . . . Mr. Hollins stated that his landlord . . . dumped the material.”

That was count number one, leveled against the landlord–who dragged his feet past the 30-day deadline for cleaning up the mess, but eventually complied. Count two was against Hollins Organic, whose owner was informed that the facility had 30 days to apply for a DEPRM solid-waste processing permit. The company finally submitted the paperwork after nearly a year, without penalty–though DEPRM did threaten legal action, which seemed to get the process in gear.

The permit file indicates that the delay was due to Hollins’ uncertainty about how to go about controlling sediment on the site. Ultimately, though, Hollins Organic installed a containment pond to trap runoff, a low basin on the site where the liquid dregs of the operation would drain and settle. The pond is separated from park property by an earthen berm, leading to a steep slope down to the unnamed stream, which starts beneath parking lots and businesses along Falls Road and meanders through the woods behind Hollins Organic on its way to the Jones Falls.

The stream courses through an area of uncommon history and ecology. In 1992, months prior to DEPRM’s first visit to Hollins Organic, the National Registry of Historic Places had made 450-acre Robert E. Lee Park the centerpiece of the then-newly designated Lake Roland Historic District, named after the erstwhile city reservoir a mile or so downstream from the composting facility. A stone’s throw away from the mulch piles is an abandoned quarry, a reminder that here is where chromite was first discovered, in 1808, heralding a half-century of Baltimore domination of global chromium production. The Virginia pines and briars that dominate Hollins Organic’s side of the park cover rocky terrain known as serpentine barren, an unusual geology attractive both for mineral extraction and, in small outcroppings of unforested space, a special array of grasses, flowers, and bugs that can tolerate its metallic soil.

Thus, it would seem, the case for stopping its degradation by Hollins Organic was that much more compelling.

In April 1994, a DEPRM inspector noted that Hollins Organic’s pond “did not appear to be designed properly. Runoff and leachate from the compost stockpiles overflows through rip-rap stone to a small feeder stream to the Jones Falls.” In February 1995, a DEPRM supervisor noted that the pond “was filling up with sediment and should be upgraded with the addition of stone”–a measure Hollins Organic took immediately.

It didn’t fix the leak, though, because a year later Robert E. Lee Park Conservancy President Robert Macht wrote a letter to DEPRM, pointing out that the stream’s “water quality is being adversely effected” by the Hollins Organic operation, that “sometimes the stream is bright green,” and that “an unpleasant odor is emanating” from the water. The county investigated the complaint, and in March 1996 issued a one-page report explaining that runoff “ponds behind blockage [on the site] and percolates into the ground and is seeping out from the side of the berm.” The one-page report’s solution: Remove the blockage, and if that didn’t work, install an impermeable liner to contain the runoff on-site.

Concerned citizens wanted more. “Water [in the stream] above this runoff is clear and largely odorless,” observed Laurie Long, then-executive director of the Ruxton-Riderwood-Lake Roland Area Improvement Association, in a March 1996 letter to DEPRM. “Water below the runoff is very dark and murky, somewhat frothy, and sometimes green,” adding that “we request that DEPRM . . . establish stream quality requirements as a condition” of Hollins Organic’s permit.

No liner was installed. No stream-quality requirements were established as a condition of the permit. Instead, the pollution continued–not continuously, perhaps, but whenever there was sufficient rainfall to overwhelm the pond’s ever-changing capacity. A Dec. 10, 1996, DEPRM memo about a phone call from the Valleys Planning Council’s then-executive director, John Bernstein, summed up the problem in shorthand: “Organic material washing into stream during storm events–improper containment. Mr. Bernstein said the stream smelled like Hollins Organic Product’s site.”

It’s not as if county officials were simply sitting on their hands. When complaints were lodged, they inspected the site. Within a week after Bernstein’s December 1996 call, for instance, an inspector again visited Hollins and found that the “pond has been washed out and filled in with mulch. The runoff was filtering through . . . [and] was murky in color and did have odor of [Hollins] products.” Doug Hollins told the inspector “he would correct the problem ASAP.” If Hollins did correct the problem, though, it was a short-lived solution because follow-up DEPRM visits, most responding to complaints in 1998 and 1999, showed the leaking continued–and was often “malodorous.”

Then, in April 2000, a DEPRM inspector visited Hollins Organic, prompted by an anonymous phone call, and discovered that “a pump was being used to empty a sediment control pond and water was being discharged” over the berm into the stream. “Mr. Hollins stated that that was the usual practice during a significant rain event.” After that, DEPRM in May 2000 secured assurances from Hollins that he would stop the illegal pumping and come up with a permanent solution to the pond problem. Nearly four years later, the county still awaits one.

In an effort to determine Hollins Organic’s impact on the stream, DEPRM sampled its water at various times starting in 1996–including once at the suggestion of Mr. Hollins himself–but the permit file is only clear about the results from 2002. The data shows that, after a rainstorm, the leaky pond dramatically elevated the stream’s concentrations of common minerals such as iron, sodium, calcium, and potassium, and discharged so much organic content that the stream water exceeded by up to 10 times the recommended standards for water released from the state’s wastewater treatment plants.

DEPRM ordered more samples, but by the end of 2002 the data-gathering was called off. “Plans have been submitted to relocate HO facility to site off of Beaver Dam Rd., in Cockeysville,” a memo in the DEPRM file reads. “As a result, no additional sampling of stream behind Falls Rd. facility is warranted.”

So far, Hollins’ plans to move to the 4.5 acres he purchased in Cockeysville haven’t borne out. (Today he says he still hopes to at least use that property as “a satellite site to relieve the pressure off of” his Bare Hills base.) But, as noted, 2003 turned out to be a record year for rainfall, and history had already shown what happens at Hollins Organic when it rains. When DEPRM returned for a routine inspection in December, it found yet again that Hollins Organic’s pond was polluting the stream.

The county agency declined, for now, to share with City Paper the documents pertaining to the latest discoveries at Hollins, but its director, David Carroll, was willing to talk about DEPRM’s position during an interview in his Towson office. “We’ve said to [Hollins Organic], you’ve got to control this permanently,” Carroll explains, his water-quality staff at hand, ready to answer further questions. “We’ll have to see what he designs, and then decide whether or not to renew his license.”

One thing is clear, though: “The law says he can’t discharge any water” from the site, says DEPRM’s waste-management chief, William Clarke, who adds that Hollins “understands now that there is no scenario under which he is permitted to discharge. Those fixes he tried over the years proved to be inadequate, and now a lot more attention has to be paid to how [the pond] is constructed.”

Clarke bristles at the conclusion that DEPRM’s efforts on behalf of the stream constitute bureaucratic foot-dragging, but, when reminded of the permit file that shows the same problem cropping up over and over again for a decade, he sums up the obvious: “Sometimes it’s a long process.”

David Carroll is head of Baltimore County’s Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management now, but he’s had similar leadership roles in Baltimore City, state, and federal government over the decades–experience that brings a hardened sense of reality about managing the environment in and around a major urban area.

“People have this romantic notion that eventually we’ll get it cleaned up, and that’ll be it,” he says of efforts to improve water quality, in the Jones Falls or any other watershed. “No, it is forever,” he announces solemnly, his slacks and sweater complementing his well-worn bearing of a wizened administrator, comfortable with the big picture and the nitpicking details alike.

“You have to manage for invasive species and deer so that birds will come back, do expensive stream restorations, fix sewer leaks–there’s always something happening there–and make new development create options to improve streams and forest cover with plantings, and install the best technology to control runoff,” Carroll says rapidly. “It’s a long-term commitment and a very complicated project. We spend quite a bit of money every year to go back and find and fix problems. Everybody has their role in it–and we welcome efforts to keep the heat up, because that’s the media’s role.”

Carroll’s posture is understandably defensive, considering the longstanding water-quality problems such as those at Hollins Organic, despite decades of lip service about cleaning them up. In his view, though, certain portions of the upper Jones Falls watershed are recuperating after decades of abuse or neglect. “A large portion of this stream is actually in pretty good status,” he points out. “We do see improvement, and it’s not finished–we have more work to do and we wish we could do even more.”

The good news is that long-term indicators of ecological health confirm that upstream sections of the watershed in the Greenspring Valley area support enough bugs and fish to qualify for removal this year from the state’s annual list of biologically impaired waters. Last year, the entire Jones Falls was taken off a similar list of waters impaired by zinc. Baltimore County officials, meanwhile, report that the Jones Falls trout population has been found as far downstream as Sorrento Run, inside the Beltway where the Jones Falls nears Lake Roland, and is so robust that it is used to stock streams in other county watersheds.

But the Jones Falls continues to bear heavy burdens from bacteria, copper, lead, nutrients, sediments, and PCBs (only in Lake Roland), according to Richard Eskin, head of the Maryland Department of the Environment’s Technical and Regulatory Services Administration. The state Department of Natural Resources, meanwhile, deems the Jones Falls a “Priority Category 1” watershed, meaning the watershed fails to meet the agency’s clean water and natural resources goals. Volunteer stream-water monitors with Maryland Save Our Streams, a now-defunct environmental group, assessed water quality just below the Lake Roland Dam 17 times between 1990 and 1999, finding it “poor” on 13 of those visits. Clearly, something’s rapidly fouling the Jones Falls water as it travels from Interstate 83 to the Lake Roland Dam.

County officials finger three urban subtributaries–Moore’s Branch, Roland Run, and Towson Run–as the most troublesome contributors to these problems. “All three have poor ratings on nine years of biological monitoring,” says DEPRM’s water-quality chief Steve Stewart, adding that costly stream restorations are planned. All three of them dump their loads on the threshold of Lake Roland, which continues to be what researchers dubbed it in a 20-year-old report about the lake: a “microbial sink,” where bacteria, sediment, and other pollutants settle out of the water. As a result, its value for water-based recreation is all but gone–swimming is a high-risk endeavor, and don’t eat the fish–but its value as a giant ecological filter is beyond question.

“Lake Roland’s been doing quite a clean-up job in itself,” observes Eldon Gemmill, another DEPRM water-quality expert. “It’s shallow, it has a lot of aquatic life and wetlands to help treat the runoff. I would dare say the Chesapeake Bay would be a lot worse off without Lake Roland.”

After all, as Carroll points out, “for 140 years, it’s been capturing everything that has come off that watershed. And all that sewerage and storm-water infrastructure from all the highways, and runoff from unregulated pre-1990s development, all of it coming through there–if I wasn’t from around here, and I was seeing the maps for the first time, I’d expect that’s where all the problems would be–right around Lake Roland.”

Field trips to hard-to-reach stretches of the Jones Falls watershed near Lake Roland leave the same unavoidable impression that Carroll describes–these are the areas where it all comes together, so to speak, and dumps a heavy load of contaminants into the falls as it rushes toward the lake. The effects of past abuses–chlordane from termite-control treatments at Greenspring Valley homes, effluent from the textile mill that operated for 150 years until 1979 on the Jones Falls banks just east of I-83–are no longer apparent, but it’s clear the water is still actively polluted.

Each little downstream tributary between Moore’s Branch and Robert E. Lee Park–about a mile-long stretch where the river’s main stem runs just east of Falls Road–makes it own little offering. One, emerging from a secluded, wooded dell right next I-83, trickles with a low but constant flow of foul-smelling water, which wells up from the ground beneath a jumbled wreck of old moss-covered pipes. Another rushes out of the Sorrento Run housing development, staining the creek-bed orange with iron oxide–a sign, county officials explain, of nutrient-rich, oxygen-depleted water upstream, possibly due to sewage. The same phenomenon can be seen where the next two downstream creeks come out of culverts carrying them from neighborhoods west of I-83. Next is the tributary that drains down from Hollins Organic, its banks periodically stained black from the murky discharges upstream.

The combined loads from these active sources are already in the Jones Falls when Roland Run and Towson Run join it at the head of the lake. Roland Run drains Riderwood’s middle-class tracts of detached single-family homes, as well as the posh yards of Ruxton, where leak-prone septic systems are the prevailing sewerage. Towson Run handles the runoff of the Shepherd Pratt/Towson University area, and by the time it approaches Lake Roland, just east of Bellona Avenue, it’s already assumed what DEPRM’s Stewart calls “an urban character” from pollution.

Pollution, of course, has been entering Lake Roland for a long time. It wasn’t until a 1972 study by Goucher College, though, that anyone had a well-informed understanding of its modern problems: rapid in-fill from sediments, high levels of nutrients robbing the water of oxygen, and bacterial contamination. The Goucher study also documented the lake’s ability to cleanse the water. Far fewer microbes were in the water as it left the lake than when it entered, the report showed, so Lake Roland was not only holding back sediments, it was also eliminating microbes.

A Baltimore City report from 1984 confirmed the Goucher group’s finding that Lake Roland was “an efficient microbial trap,” and added that nutrient concentrations in the lake had decreased since 1972. Yet it uncovered a new mystery: “in-lake bacterial contamination was observed which could not be accounted for by tributary inputs.” In other words, something in or immediately around the lake itself, as opposed to its feeder streams, was adding bacteria to the water. The report speculated that the giant sewer main that runs under the lake, or failing septic tanks nearby, might be to blame.

Given the sediment loads entering the lake, meanwhile, the city researchers working on the 1984 report estimated the lake would fill in completely sometime between 2004 and 2048. Without dredging, the report predicted, a filled-in Lake Roland would lose effectiveness as a trap and “sediment and pollutants now trapped in the lake will be transported” downstream to the harbor, where they would have to be dredged later as part of shipping-channel maintenance.

The lake was not dredged, though a stronger replacement dam–the first since the original was put in service in 1861–was constructed in the early 1990s. Carroll knows of no dredging plans–“It would cost a great deal,” he points out. Much better, he says, to let Lake Roland continue to fill in, its open water replaced with emerging acres of stream-traversed wetlands soaking up and settling out the pollutants–cleansing the Jones Falls, at least partially, before it heads across the dam. “We’d almost have to reproduce it by design,” Carroll says of the wetlands’ aid to Jones Falls water quality.

Still, the 1984 report raises the undeniable prospect that the lake will continue to lose more of its valuable capacity to trap so much of the pollutant load the Jones Falls brings it. Since dredging is not in the cards, the obvious solution is more of the same–working to plug leaks, slow erosion, and generally lighten the load the lake and the Jones Falls have to handle.

When it comes to improving the health of the upstream portions of the watershed, “that’s the only way we’ve been able to turn the corner” Carroll contends. “And that’s how we’ll work our way out of the rest of these years of abuses.

“We still have a long, long way to go, certainly in the lower watershed,” he continues. “And the city has a doubly or trebly tough situation.”

The city’s contribution to the Jones Falls’ pollutant load is substantial, and measured in great detail by the city Department of Public Works in an annual report. The latest one, issued last June, shows that Western Run (which enters the Jones Falls at Mount Washington after coursing along Cross Country Boulevard) and Stony Run (which drains Roland Park and Hampden) both suffer from chronic sewage contamination and are virtually devoid of fish. Channel improvements for Stony Run, costing $6.65 million, have been put in the city’s capital budget to help improve matters.

But above the dam, the city also has key responsibilities. After all, city-owned Lake Roland and Robert E. Lee Park fall under the bailiwick of the city Department of Recreation and Parks. Efforts to improve the department’s attention to the park have proven exasperating for critics, such as Robert Macht of the Robert E. Lee Park Conservancy, who says he’s “really frustrated by the lack of care that I perceive the city has taken–little if any management, maintenance, enforcement of rules, or concern for environmental problems. They’ve just failed to show concern on so many counts.”

“There is a lot of controversy around the use of the park,” concedes city Recreation and Parks spokesman Robert Green, “about upkeep and maintenance and future safety, particularly in regards to the 30 acres that are to be closed–the peninsula area–for a soil remediation and erosion control project.” This effort, which is scheduled to begin soon, intends to rectify suspected contamination from dog waste in an area of the park that has long been used almost exclusively by dog owners.

The move was sparked by an October soil analysis on the peninsula that found bacteria and acid levels up to 17,000 times what’s acceptable for human contact, Green explains, though he’s hesitant to speculate that these over-the-top bacteria readings may help explain the 1984 study’s mystery of in-lake bacterial sources: “It’s hard to say for sure, but clearly the soil is very contaminated” and is actively eroding into the lake. Many dog owners have vocally voiced doubt about the contamination, and heated public meetings this winter have left an acrimonious air around the controversy.

In addition, Green adds, the long-planned replacement of the old footbridge across the Jones Falls just below the dam with a bridge capable of handling heavy equipment “is in the final planning stages, and will enable us to do the [soil-remediation] project, and provide better maintenance on an ongoing basis.”

Jeff Budnitz, a board member of the Ruxton-Riderwood-Lake Roland Area Improvement Association, lives next to Robert E. Lee Park and is optimistic that the city is beginning to take an active interest in improving the park. He points to the city’s 13-point “concept plan” for improving the park, a one-page planning document distributed last September, that he says marks the beginning of a coordinated city-county effort to “make the community feel like the pump is being primed” for more action. Some issues set to be addressed, such as shoreline stabilization, erosion protection, and trails maintenance, are much-needed elements of any strategy to help the park reduce its impact on Jones Falls water quality.

Of course, humans and human use are the biggest contributors to the decline in the ecology of the park area. As Christel Cothran, program director of the Jones Falls Watershed Association, notes, “There is so much foot traffic, you have to ask, as with so many such parks, are we loving them to death with high use?” The city’s strategy of closing off the peninsula seems wise, she says, adding that it should extend the practice to other areas of the 450-acre park–“close off sections at a time, give them a rest,” she says. Either way, she adds, now that the city’s doing something, “I think maybe we should give them a little bit of credit for that.”

The same, Cothran continues, holds true for the county. While its handling of the Hollins Organic permit appears to have been a case of ineffectual regulation, Baltimore County’s government “is more attuned to protecting the environment than most any other place in the country,” she contends, rattling off various ways that agencies there have been recognized nationally for their zealous pursuit of good environmental management. “They’re way advanced,” in her estimation, which is why she’s tickled that her organization is partnered with DEPRM to help improve conditions for the Jones Falls by monitoring for pollution problems.

“This is a great opportunity to promote stream-watch programs,” Cothran says of the current attention focused on Lake Roland and the Jones Falls, including the snafu at Hollins Organic, which garnered lots of attention over the years from complaining citizens, yet continued to pollute the stream. “We try to catch these things,” she says. “But the effort’s still not good enough, in many cases. Years go by before people walk back in some of those stream-valley areas, much less report what they might come across. The more people doing that, the better we’re going to be at catching and stopping sources.”

Echoing Carroll’s response when confronted with suggestions that maybe not enough was being done to lessen the Jones Falls’ load, Cothran says bring on the spotlights. “All of the attention we can get for these problems is welcome and needed,” she says. “That’s the only way to fix them, is to have more people involved in the solutions.”

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