Untestable Waters: A Jones Falls tributary in Robert E. Lee Park spoiled by composting operation

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Dec. 24, 2003

Walking in city-owned Robert E. Lee Park, along the east side of Bare Hills in Baltimore County, you’re bound to turn up some deer or maybe scare up a grouse or two. Virginia pines and thick mats of briars and vines dominate the rocky, thin-soiled landscape, which is crisscrossed with streams and trails, some of them used occasionally by humans, most of them blazed faintly by deer that leave scat and hoof-prints on the ground and rub marks from their antlers on tree-trunks.

This pocket of the park, while idyllic, is situated up against the backs of several businesses lining Falls Road, including Hollins Organic Products, a two-acre composting and mulching operation. The company has been located at this Falls Road site for 22 years and, of late, City Paper has discovered, it has been giving Robert E. Lee Park and the Jones Falls, which runs through the park, a nasty dose of pollution.

“This is almost making me puke,” exclaims Darin Crew, a stream monitor for the Herring Run Watershed Association, as he steps carefully around a tree-strewn, briar-choked stream-bed in this rarely traveled area of the park. This particular stream runs alongside Hollins Organic Products, and its water is a murky blackish-brown; it eventually empties into the Jones Falls, less than a mile downstream.

“It smells like a combination of manure and old tobacco chew,” Crew notes. “And the water’s black as English breakfast tea. It’s so full of suspended matter that you can’t see through it at all.”

Robert E. Lee Park’s more high-profile pollution problem, as reported recently in the news, has not been dirty, smelly run-off from Hollins Organic, but rather the tremendous concentration of dog waste that’s accumulated in another, more populated section of the park. City officials are mulling the wholesale replacement of contaminated topsoil near the Jones Falls Dam, which is a hugely popular dog-walking spot.

The pollution from Hollins, discovered by Baltimore County officials on Dec. 12 and stumbled upon by a City Paper reporter walking in the park two days later, has been mostly off the radar. Runoff from Hollins may have been polluting the stream at varying intensities for years, however, though no one has previously noted or reported it.

At City Paper‘s request, Crew agreed to test the water to find out what, if anything, could be polluting the small, unnamed tributary. The test, conducted on Dec. 16, involves adding chemical tablets to vials of samples, causing reactions that change the water’s color to indicate levels of acidity, nitrogen, and phosphates. But because the water was, in Crew’s words, “too dark and turbid to show any color,” it was untestable.

“So at this point I don’t know what’s in it,” Crews says. “But it’s definitely a problem.”

Among other lines of business, Hollins Organic accepts natural wood waste–mostly tree stumps, trunks, branches–and turns it into marketable mulch sold for landscaping and gardening. During the processing, excess water that isn’t soaked up in the compost piles drains to the lowest point of the company’s yard, where it collects in a pool next to a berm separating it from park property. The park side of the berm is a steep slope, and water from the pool is seeping through rapidly, cascading down in black, bubbling rivulets until it collects in a small marsh that drains steadily into the stream, which runs dark from that point on. The side of the berm and the marshy soils are stained black from the effluent.

The day after the test, Crews speculated about what could be in the “black seep overflow” that is making its way to the stream and what impact it could be having on living things in the water.

“We definitely know that there are nutrients, coloring, and fine sediments leaving Hollins,” he says. “The sedimentation within the stream, combined with the coloring, has to be disrupting the aquatic life, suffocating and smothering bugs and fish. I would guess, based on my professional experience, that sediments and color are impairing the stream, if this is occurring year-round.”

Based on anecdotal evidence from dog walkers who frequent these woods, it has been occurring year-round, and for a while.

“It’s been running murky for a couple of years now,” says Chris Toland, who visits the parks regularly on his dog walks–and this time was trying to keep nine dogs from drinking the sullied stream water. “But it appears to have gotten worse fairly recently.”

Following the stream to its mouth at the Jones Falls, one crosses two smaller tributaries, which run clean and clear from the uphill woods until they join the despoiled stream. The stream-side sediments are stained black, and the stream’s banks are lined with downed, dead, and dying trees. In the long-abandoned railroad bed that runs through the park, the stream forms still, black pools. At its entry to the Jones Falls, it spills out in a distinct black ribbon that runs with the current for 20 or so yards before mixing into the much larger river.

Toland (a personal friend of this writer) and his companion, Mary Byrne, always figured authorities knew about the problem, they say, since the stream has been obviously polluted for so long. But then again, they note, this area of the park is so remote that such problems could be missed, or not recognized as problems.

“We never see anybody out here,” Byrne says.

When contacted about the runoff into the stream from his business, Hollins Organic owner Doug Hollins invited City Paper to visit the company’s Falls Road site, with his engineer, Rick Richardson, in tow. The Hollins officials say they are aware of the pollution problem the company is creating, and they are trying to come up with a solution.

The company has tried to contain excess runoff from its mulching operations with a makeshift stone dam built into a low part of the berm that separates the yard from the park. This runoff management system, Hollins says, is designed according to standards required under state and county permits. But this year’s extraordinary amount of rainfall–2003 is heading toward being Baltimore’s wettest year on record–has overwhelmed it, causing runoff to breach the berm and flow into the stream.

“I want to fix this right away,” Hollins says, as a pump-out truck pulls up and prepares to drain the pond. Behind him, a giant grinder is spitting shredded wood, hot and steamy from decomposition, into piles that are being pushed around by bulldozers. “Then I want to engineer something so this won’t happen again. I’ve been here 22 years and I take this seriously.”

Hollins says inspectors from the Baltimore County Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management visited the site on Dec. 12, which is when the pollution problem was discovered.

“We went out on a routine inspection,” says Baltimore County spokesman Bill Clark, “and noted that there was a problem with the pond, and they were advised at that time that they were in violation.”

“I don’t think it had been going on very long,” Hollins contends, adding that on Nov. 5 the Maryland Department of the Environment performed a routine inspection and found nothing wrong “that I know of.”

As for the stench of the water, and its dark, turbid quality, Hollins explains that “it’s murky because, in an effort to maintain [run-off] water on the property, we’ve created a stagnant pond. The organic matter [from the composting and mulching operation] gets trapped in the pond and is basically fermented, which is why we have this odor.”

Maryland Department of the Environment spokesman Richard McIntire says he has no record of a department inspection at the company on Nov. 5, the date Hollins cites. “We have not been there recently,” he says, noting that the case “has been assigned to an area inspector . . . but we don’t know when we’ll get there” to analyze the seepage and determine the level of pollution it is likely causing.

“We should have heard about this long ago from somewhere,” McIntire says. “We can’t be everywhere all the time, but taking care of the environment is everyone’s responsibility.”

Christel Cothran, who runs the nonprofit Jones Falls Watershed Association, was notified by City Paper about the Hollins Organic situation. She notes that the Jones Falls is already suffering from fecal-coliform contamination, which was revealed most recently in a midsummer sampling her organization did at 26 locations throughout the Jones Falls watershed–23 of them were found to exceed limits for contamination.

Cothran says she is hopeful that a combination of regulatory pressure and Hollins’ ingenuity will fix the leak and allow the stream to take on a semblance of healthfulness. But her hope is tinged with a level of frustration borne of experience: “It’s just amazing, once something like this is spotted, how long it takes to fix.”

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