Working Skiffs: Overlooked as a kayaking destination, Baltimore and the Bay make for excellent native paddling

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, May 22, 2002

When it comes to sea kayaking, Monterey has nothing on Baltimore. A tourism industry focused on the waterfront? Check. Tidal wetlands to explore? Hey, we live on the nation’s largest estuary, the Chesapeake Bay, with thousands of miles of tidal shoreline. About the only sea-kayaking attraction we don’t have that the Northern California coast does is sea otters–and sea kayaks.

In Monterey, throngs lounging in the hotels, bars, and cafés stretched along the water’s edge survey the Pacific coast as flotillas of kayaks bob by in the swell, many of them en route to Elkhorn Slough, a small estuary whose tidal wetlands are the area’s paddling gem. In Baltimore, the Inner Harbor promenade attracts constant crowds to the waterfront, yet rarely do they see a kayak gunk-holing around the harbor basin. And except for a few select areas, sea kayaks–portable, sleek paddle craft with closed decks–remain maritime oddities along Chesapeake estuarine shores.

The sparse popularity of a sport to which this area is so perfectly suited is inexplicable to Joel Beckwith, manager of the sports-equipment company Springriver Corp.’s local store. Since 2000, Beckwith, at work on a paddling guide to the Chesapeake, has been making a sea-kayak study of the Delmarva Peninsula, starting in Havre de Grace and heading south to Cape Charles, Va., then north on the Atlantic Ocean side to Lewes, Del. Along the way, he’s seen “very, very, very few kayaks. A lot of places we didn’t see anybody other than work boats. It’s amazing.”

Maybe it’s the water. Around Baltimore, it’s downright nasty. Trash, runoff, and the city’s now-famous sewage-system problems (requiring $900 million in repairs over the next 14 years) taint much of the Patapsco, as does industrial pollution, much of it embedded in the river’s sediments. And the Chesapeake as a whole isn’t exactly pristine, what with Pfiesteria and mycobacteriosis eating away at the fish and the declining numbers of crabs and oysters. But that’s the nice thing about a sea kayak–you get in the water, but you don’t have to get wet (except maybe a few splashes here and there, or in the unlikely event of a capsize).

Or maybe it’s Baltimore’s tendency to resist new things. Although kayaks have been around for eons–ancient Eskimo vessels inspired today’s varied designs–the market for kayaks in the United States has been booming. Just as Baltimore never really caught on to the dot-com revolution before it ended, the kayak craze has been passing us by.

No big deal. For those who do kayak in Baltimore and the bay–including yours truly–the local lack of interest leaves more territory to explore without fellow paddlers intruding on our adventures. Whether it’s barhopping from Locust Point to Fells Point, nosing up dark tunnels under the city’s streets, surfing with the breeze off Fort McHenry, or poking around wetlands that used to be shipping terminals, Baltimore offers kayaking possibilities that are nothing if not varied. And if cityscapes don’t float your boat, a short drive takes you and your vessel to the natural environs off Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties. Cross the Bay Bridge and the paddling options are virtually limitless.

In the city proper, there are precious few decent put-in spots: the low dock next to the Korean War Memorial in Canton, Ferry Bar Park in Port Covington, and the boat ramp next to Harbor Hospital in Cherry Hill. Further down the Patapsco, Fort Armistead and Fort Smallwood–both city-owned parks with boat ramps–provide additional water access. If you don’t own your own boat, city dwellers can join the Canton Kayak Club (www.cantonkayakclub.com) and use its kayaks and equipment, which are kept on docks at Tide Point in Locust Point and Tindeco Wharf in Canton.

For kayaking on somewhat cleaner waters, head out to one of three nearby state parks: Sandy Point (by the Bay Bridge near Annapolis), Rocky Point (where the Back River enters the bay near Essex), and Gunpowder Falls’ Hammerman Area. The latter, at the end of Eastern Avenue near Chase, is also home to Ultimate Watersports (www.ultimatewatersports.com), which rents boats and helps new paddlers learn the ropes. Regular paddlers who use these parks can save on entrance fees by purchasing a yearly pass, which costs $60 and provides access to all Maryland state parks.

Perhaps the best way to enjoy the Eastern Shore by kayak is to plan your own trip. DeLorme’s Maryland Delaware Atlas & Gazetteer (www.delorme.com), which combines road-map information with topographic detail, can get you where you want to go. After locating your destination, pay a visit to the Maryland Geological Survey (either at 2300 St. Paul St. or at www.mgs.md.gov) and procure more detailed maps. The quantity of Eastern Shore territory that is navigable by sea kayak is astounding, especially between St. Michaels and Crisfield, where much of the coastline is untouched by development.

Despite the smallness of Baltimore’s community of sea kayakers, there are plenty of ways to get involved and to keep abreast of activities. Springriver Corp. (6434 Baltimore National Pike, Catonsville, [410] 788-3377) and REI (63 W. Aylesbury Road, Timonium, [410] 252-5920) both sell kayaks and boast knowledgeable staff who can help get you on the local waters. The Greater Baltimore Canoe Club (www.baltimorecanoeclub.org) serves as a gathering point for local paddlers and hosts outings. And the newly hatched SeaKayak Web site (www.seakayak.ws) gives in-depth information about kayaking on bay waters. (One of SeaKayak’s hosts, Stephen Rohrs, taught me to roll in a sea kayak–after many unsuccessful attempts.)

Still, Baltimore is no Monterey, no sea-kayaking mecca. And it’s not likely to become one. As Springriver’s Beckwith says, “I’ve been promoting the sport in the Baltimore area for 20 years and I’ll be damned if it’s made a bit of difference.” Even in a place as eccentric as Baltimore, a kayak remains an enigma on the water. And that’s fine with me.

Hot Load: Baltimore tunnel fire, Aberdeen missile test targets in national nuke-transport debate

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Feb. 20, 2002

Nevada’s Yucca Mountain may be nearly a continent away, but the Baltimore area has become ground zero in the debate over plans to store the nation’s 70,000 tons of nuclear waste there, under a decades-in-the-making plan formally approved by President Bush on Feb. 15.

In the days leading up to and following Bush’s OK, which sends the issue to Congress for final approval, two close-to-home events–a 1998 missile-strike test on a nuclear-waste container at Aberdeen Proving Ground and last summer’s chemical fire in the Howard Street tunnel–have been cited by Nevada officials and other opponents of the Yucca Mountain plan. Critics maintain that both events offer cautionary evidence about what might happen to the casks used to transport radioactive waste in the event of a terrorist attack or severe accident.

After the July 2001 tunnel fire, the state of Nevada hired the consulting firm Radioactive Waste Management Associates (RWMA) to study the potential impact had the Baltimore blaze involved nuclear-waste containers. Some Yucca Mountain blueprints include transporting such cargo through the Howard Street tunnel from the Calvert Cliffs nuclear-power plant in Southern Maryland or other Southeastern nuclear facilities (“Hot Line,” Sept. 12, 2001).

The nuclear-power industry and supporters of the Yucca plan have maintained that a fire of the heat and duration necessary to rupture one of the casts was virtually impossible. But RWMA concluded that the Baltimore fire would have caused a cask to break, exposing tens of thousands of people to acute radiation and necessitating billions of dollars in cleanup costs. (The full report can be read at the State of Nevada’s Web site.)

The test at Aberdeen, meanwhile, points up dangers associated with potential terrorist attacks, another risk downplayed by the nuclear industry, despite the events of recent months. While acknowledging that some weapon systems can puncture the waste containers, the industry argues that any radioactive release would be small and easily contained. Not so, contend Yucca critics, who claim a newly released videotape of the 1998 test proves otherwise.

The tape suddenly became a hot property in the Yucca debate when word circulated among plan opponents early this month that U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.) had a copy and was considering releasing it to the media. That hasn’t yet happened, but a copy of the video was obtained by City Paper from Thomas Kirch, president of International Fuel Containers Inc. (IFC), the New York-based marketing arm for a German firm that makes nuclear-waste containers.

IFC used Aberdeen Proving Ground’s facilities and personnel to test the strength of the German Castor cask, a container used around the world to store and ship spent nuclear fuel. The tape shows a TOW anti-tank missile blowing a hole through the cast-iron wall of a Castor cask. When a second round is fired into the cask–this time protected by IFC’s patented “flak jacket” material–the video shows little damage to the cask wall, though the protective material is pulverized.

“The most staggering implication of the IFC test is that, if [the missile] drilled that softball-sized hole through 15 inches of cast iron, it certainly wouldn’t have any trouble penetrating a truck cask,” the smaller, steel kind used to ship waste on highways, says Robert Halstead, transportation adviser to Nevada’s Agency for Nuclear Projects.

A self-proclaimed “green nuclear advocate” whose studies of nuclear-waste transportation issues have focused largely on the risks of terrorist attacks on casks, Halstead says he’s “dumbfounded” at the sudden emergence of the test video, which he contends is proof that widely available anti-tank weaponry can go through a cask wall and disperse its radioactive contents–a point that has been debated for years and has gained relevance since Sept. 11. The Castor has been considered “the premier storage and transport cask in the world since the 1980s,” Halstead says, meaning that other containers in use for nuclear transport could be even more vulnerable to missile attacks.

“The test proved exactly what the state of Nevada had feared,” he says, “that these casks are highly vulnerable to state-of-the-art weapons.”

Kirch contends that the missile piercing the cask does not prove that the container is insecure. “[I]t can be easily repaired, right on the spot, in a very short period of time, using a lead plug,” he says. “And the amount of leakage or contamination would be very, very controlled and very limited.”

(“I’d like to meet one of these people who is going to volunteer to walk up to the hole in the cask like the Dutch boy walking up to plug up the hole in the dam,” Halstead counters. “Remember, they are going to be entering a radiation zone.”)

Kirch, a self-described proponent of nuclear nonproliferation, has a long history as a player in the atomic-power arena. Since the mid-1990s, he has been a principal in a firm called U.S. Fuel & Security Inc., along with U.S. Navy Adm. Daniel Murphy (retired) and Alex Copson, a former member of the rock group Iron Butterfly.

Kirch says the company aims to end reprocessing of spent fuel from nuclear-power plants into weapons-grade plutonium by controlling the world’s supply of spent fuel and securing it at a centralized location, an idea with some support in the nation’s nuclear, defense, and intelligence communities. An initial proposal to store the fuel on an oceanic atoll was rejected; Kirch says U.S. Fuel & Security and allied groups–including the Nonproliferation Trust, a Washington based company whose leaders include Murphy and former FBI and CIA chief William Webster–have set their sights on a site in Russia.

As to IFC’s involvement in the Yucca Mountain controversy, Kirch asserts that his video is not relevant to the debate of nuclear transport and is being misrepresented for “political purposes” by Nevada officials seeking to derail the Yucca plan.

“The test was performed purely to demonstrate the safety of the metal cask and the increased security of using a ballistic protection system,” he says. The cask that was tested, he notes, is not licensed in the United States for transportation of nuclear waste, but only for storage. However, the 41/2-minute Aberdeen video, produced in infomercial style, proclaims that the test shows the Castor casks can safely “both store and transport spent nuclear fuel.”

Officials at the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group that has downplayed the risks of nuclear transport in trucks and trains and criticized the RWMA report, did not return phone calls seeking comment on that study or the Aberdeen video.

Halstead contends the nuclear industry is hurting itself by questioning such indications of risk: “They should be saying, ‘Yep, once in a great while there is an accident that is really so bad that it might threaten these casks,’ and then setting to work managing those risks.” He suggests rerouting shipments to avoid places where accidents are more frequent; running track-inspection cars ahead of trains to make sure there’s nothing to cause a derailment; and requiring that nuclear waste be shipped only on “dedicated” trains carrying no other cargo.

(The fire under Howard Street was prolonged by the presence of wood products among the train’s cargo. The industry maintains that it voluntarily uses only dedicated trains for nuclear shipments.)

“There are very straightforward ways to manage risk once you acknowledge that the risk exists,” Halstead says. “But if you are determined, as the nuclear industry is, to defy reality and say that there are no risks, you are asking for Exxon Valdez–and it will happen to them.”

 

Hot Line: The Feds are considering shipping spent nuclear fuel through the Howard Street Tunnel. Are they playing with fire?

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Sept. 12, 2001

For a few days in mid-July, a few dozen train cars carrying hazardous chemicals and other materials burned out of control beneath the city. After a century of barely being known even to Baltimoreans, the Howard Street tunnel was suddenly in the national spotlight.

As an event, the tunnel fire was both scary and enthralling. Local residents and commuters were inundated with news of gridlock, a water-main break, and possibly toxic smoke. TV sets all over the country glimmered with images of menacing plumes and flooded streets, coupled with reports that the too-hot-to-fight inferno was disrupting not only rail traffic, but Internet services via cables that also run through the tunnel. But as normalcy was restored in the ensuing days and weeks, coverage tailed off. Today, for most folks, the fire is just a memory.

Lost in the immediacy of the moment and the disinterest of its aftermath are two questions that may ensure the Howard Street tunnel fire’s lasting legacy: What if nuclear waste had been among the freight in the hottest part of the fire? Could radioactivity have been released, contaminating people and property in the heart of a major East Coast city?

The question isn’t merely theoretical. A long-studied proposal for handling the nation’s growing inventory of nuclear waste by carting it from points around the country to a permanent repository in Nevada’s Yucca Mountain is expected to reach President Bush’s desk later this year. If the project gets a presidential thumbs-up and survives the resulting legal challenges, spent nuclear fuel will be a frequent passenger on the nation’s highways and railroads for the next three or four decades, en route to the Nevada desert. Plans drawn up by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) call for carrying used-up fuel assemblies from Constellation Energy’s Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant in Southern Maryland by train through the Howard Street tunnel.

When it comes to managing the potential of large-scale risks such as nuclear accidents, examining extreme hypothetical situations–the possibility, for instance, of nuclear waste in the Howard Street tunnel fire–is crucial to finding ways to avoid disasters. Thus, nuclear-transportation experts have started to examine and debate what they have dubbed “the Baltimore fire.” Until the actual conditions of the fire–the top temperature reached, how long it stayed that hot–are established, much of the talk is necessarily speculative. But the central questions posed by the fire are already known: How sturdy are the containers used to transport nuclear waste? How foolproof are the methods of moving them safely by train?

Critics contend that the containers, called “transportation casks,” haven’t been tested enough to know their true strength; cost, rather than safety, is the chief priority in designing nuclear-transportation plans, they say. The nuclear-energy industry points out the exemplary safety record of waste shipments and outlines the stringent measures taken to guard against reasonably foreseeable dangers. However the argument turns out, it’s a good bet that as the Yucca Mountain Project heats up, the Howard Street tunnel fire will be national news once again.

Sitting in her Mount Washington home July 18, Gwen Dubois listened anxiously to reports of a tunnel fire downtown. Her teenage son had already left on the light rail for a double-header at Oriole Park. “On any given day, he’s as likely to be at Camden Yards as he is to be home, despite what’s happened to the Orioles this season,” she says, recalling her worries in an interview later that month. Knowing that freight trains often carry chemicals that can produce toxic smoke when burned, Dubois was “concerned about whether his health was at risk.” When “later on I found out that he was stopped on North Avenue and came home, I was greatly relieved,” she says.

Dubois’ relief about the fire was short-lived. An internist, she sits on the board of directors of Physicians for Social Responsibility, a nonprofit group based in Washington that works to raise public awareness of nuclear issues. On her house hangs a large banner reading nuclear-free zone. Attuned as she is to nuclear risks, her thoughts quickly broadened from the chemical fire to larger issues.

“Within hours,” she says, “I was thinking, If this were a train carrying radioactive waste, what kind of exposures would there be? Who would be monitoring? Would we even know? What about the psychological impact on people who are afraid that they’ve been exposed? So, as bad as this fire was, I thought it would have been just truly a catastrophe if the train had carried nuclear waste. . . .

“As time goes by, the other issue is, it’s going to become more and more likely that trains will contain nuclear waste, and nuclear waste carried in containers that haven’t been adequately tested. And also, this train wreck–the temperatures were extremely high, high enough to cause burning of nuclear waste and make some of the radioactivity airborne and carried over a wider area,” she continues. “So all of the specifics about this train fire–the temperature, the difficulty getting to it, the fact that it was in an urban area where a lot of people were potentially exposed–all of these factors are so relevant. If the cargo was radioactive, the implications would have really been just mammoth.”

Dubois’ mind was not the only one turning to the potential nuclear risks posed by the Howard Street tunnel fire. U.S. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.)–the Senate majority whip and, like every other elected official in Nevada, a strident opponent of the Yucca Mountain plan–took to the Senate floor the day after the fire began to offer his take on the dangers.

“People think hydrochloric acid is bad, which it is,” Reid said, referring to one of the hazardous materials carried by the burning train in Baltimore, “but not as bad as nuclear waste. A speck the size of a pinpoint would kill a person. And we’re talking about transporting some 70,000 tons of it all across America.”

Reid enlisted the aid of Maryland Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Paul Sarbanes in promptly convincing his colleagues to do what politicians often do when drastic accidents occur: order a study. On July 23, as charred rail cars were being removed from the Howard Street tunnel, the Senate voted 96-0 to attach an amendment to the U.S. Department of Transportation appropriations bill requiring DOT to conduct a top-down assessment of the nation’s system for transporting hazardous and radioactive waste.

Reid’s actions in the wake of the Baltimore fire caused a flurry of interest–back in Nevada. “Baltimore’s experience should be reason enough to comprehend that Yucca Mountain isn’t just Nevada’s problem, it would be a land mine for any city or town that had the misfortune of being located near the path that would take nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain,” the daily Las Vegas Suneditorialized on July 25 under the headline “Baltimore derailment a bad omen.”

Also quick to pick up on the nuke-train angle was the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, a Washington-based activist group. The organization’s nuclear-waste specialist, Kevin Kamps, shot off a press release on July 21, revealing that a U.S. Department of Energy assessment of the Yucca Mountain Project included route maps that showed nuclear-waste shipments going by rail from Calvert Cliffs through the Howard Street tunnel. Kamps spent the next two weeks touring the country, garnering news coverage of this new twist to the Yucca Mountain debate.

Pro-Yucca forces dismiss attempts to play up the Baltimore fire as a nuclear-waste-transportation issue. The day after Reid made his speech on the Senate floor, the industry issued its response. “It is really unfair for Sen. Reid to use this as an opportunity to make a case against Yucca Mountain by scaring the public,” said Mitch Singer, a spokesperson for the D.C.-based Nuclear Industry Institute (NEI). Sarah Berk, spokesperson for U.S. Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), told reporters that Reid’s response to the tunnel fire is “a misguided and misinformed effort to connect something that should not be connected. The fact of the matter is, if that train had been carrying nuclear components, it would have been protected in containers that would have prevented this sort of a spill.” Berk stressed the nuclear-power industry’s “phenomenal safety record” and its ongoing efforts “to develop safe and responsible methods to handle nuclear waste.”

The NEI’s Web site (www.nei.org) points out that nuclear-waste shipments are small, carefully managed, and do have a remarkable safety record: In nearly 40 years of transporting spent nuclear fuel, there have been 2,900 shipments and only eight accidents. Only one was serious, and none resulted in a radioactive release.

In Maryland, shipments of high-level radioactive materials have occurred without incident. Twenty-eight thousand pounds of radioactive material passed through Maryland in four shipments during July and August 2000, according to the Maryland State Police, which is notified of such hauls, and since 1996 approximately 15 kilograms of spent nuclear fuel were trucked through the state in five separate shipments.

In addition, an NRC report shows that between 1993 and 1997 154.8 kilograms of spent nuclear fuel were shipped out of state from the Dundalk Marine Terminal, Calvert Cliffs, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg. Another 17.1 kilograms were sent to Dundalk for export.

The key to safely transporting spent nuclear rods is the survivability of the casks. The NRC, according to NEI’s Web site, requires that transportation casks “pass a series of hypothetical accident conditions that create forces greater than the containers would experience in actual accidents. The same container must, in sequence, undergo 1) a 30-foot free fall onto an unyielding surface, 2) a 40-inch fall onto a steel rod six inches in diameter, 3) a 30-minute exposure to fire at 1,475 degrees Fahrenheit that engulfs the entire container, and 4) submergence under three feet of water for eight hours.”

What the NEI site doesn’t point out is that never has an actual, full-size cask been subjected to this battery of assaults. Quarter-scale models have been used as the basis for computer models that predict how an actual cask would perform in extreme circumstances. But no actual full-scale testing has been conducted, because subjecting a 130-ton cask to those conditions is logistically challenging and very expensive–probably near $20 million per test. Thus–as Yucca Mountain Project critics like to point out–there is no real-life basis for concluding the casks can survive such extreme circumstances.

The third element in the NRC’s list of standards–the 30-minute, all-engulfing fire at 1,475 degrees Fahrenheit–is the one that turned attention to the Baltimore blaze. Firefighters here reported whole train cars aglow from the heat of the tunnel fire. On the second day of the fire, Baltimore City Fire Department officials told the press that the temperature in the tunnel was as high as 1,500 degrees. If the hottest part of the fire rose above 1,475 degrees for more than 30 minutes–as appears likely, though technical analysis has yet to prove it–then the Howard Street tunnel fire achieved a rare intensity that gives pause to nuclear-waste- transportation experts.

Questions to NEI’s press office about whether casks are designed to survive a fire as intense as Baltimore’s was reported to be were referred to Robert Jones, a Los Gatos, Calif., nuclear engineer who designed casks for General Electric for 13 years and now works as a nuclear-industry consultant. Jones was skeptical about whether the Baltimore fire actually exceeded the design standard for casks. If it did, he says, it would be a singular event. Jones cites a government study showing that the probability of an actual railroad fire exceeding the regulatory conditions is less than 1/10 of 1 percent.

“I’ll wager that 1,500 degrees did not exist totally for a day and a half” in the Howard Street tunnel, Jones says. He acknowledges, though, that if it did, “there’s a potential for some release. But we’re not talking about this thing blowing up.” Rather, he explains, “the leakage, if it was to occur, is likely to be a radioactive gas that would be dispersed.”

Daniel Bullen, who sits on the federal Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board , concurs with Jones. “Would there potentially be a release? Yes,” says Bullen, an Iowa State University engineering professor who used to run that school’s now-closed nuclear-reactor laboratory. Foreseeing the questions his answer raises, he fires off a quick interview with himself: “Would it be a significant release? Probably not. Would it be hard to find? No, because radiation is pretty easy to find. Would it be difficult to remediate? Maybe. You might have to move a lot of dirt and clean up a lot of surface and stuff. But would it be significantly life-threatening? Probably not.”

“Oh, this guy’s just shooting from the hip,” Marvin Resnikoff says upon hearing Bullen’s characterization of the effects of a long-burning 1,500-degree fire. Resnikoff, a physicist, heads Radioactive Waste Management Associates, a New York-based consulting firm that specializes in analyzing nuclear-waste safety. The state of Nevada recently hired him to look at the Howard Street tunnel fire and report on its implications for safe transport of spent nuclear fuel. The report is due to be completed this month; when it’s released, Resnikoff asserts, “we’ll have much more definitive answers.”

In the meantime, Resnikoff offers a glimpse of what he’s learning. If the fire turns out to be as hot as reported–and his analysis will establish whether or not it was–then a potential release would include other materials besides radioactive gas.

“There are particulates,” he says. “We are concerned about cesium 137 because it is semivolatile. And we are concerned about cobalt 60, to a lesser extent, because that material is on the outside” of spent-fuel assemblies and could be released more quickly in the event of a leak. Cesium 137 and cobalt 60 are radioactive carcinogens that have half-lives of 30 and five years, respectively, so they represent a long-term cancer risk. They emit gamma rays, which, according to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fact sheet, “can easily pass completely through the human body or be absorbed by tissue, thus constituting a radiation hazard for the entire body.” Based on the weather conditions that existed during the Baltimore fire, Resnikoff estimates that a radioactive smoke plume exiting the southern terminus of the tunnel would have spread perilously close to Camden Yards.

Until the report is concluded and released, Resnikoff declines to give any more details of his concerns about what could have happened if nuclear waste had been in the Howard Street tunnel fire. Robert Halstead, transportation adviser for the Nevada Office of Nuclear Projects, which hired Resnikoff to study the Baltimore fire, is much more candid.

If the fire was hot enough for a long enough time to compromise the casks and cause a leak, Halstead says, “you are going to be concerned with this plume of smoke carrying cesium and some other fission products. Obviously it’s bad if you breathe it, but also, because it is a big-time emitter of gamma radiation, there is direct radiation from the plume. If anything’s been deposited on the ground, it’s irradiating the area also. It would cause a very big cleanup problem.

“So you basically would face this terrible choice,” Halstead says. “You could easily spend in excess of $5 [billion] to $10 billion to clean the area. Or you could simply quarantine the area. The real answer on this is that you are probably going to have a situation where you’ve spent money rather than lives. There probably aren’t going to be thousands of latent cancer fatalities, but you are going to have to spend hundreds of millions or billions of dollars to prevent that. That’s a pretty fair ballpark [figure].”

If Resnikoff concludes that the Baltimore fire actually could damage a nuclear-waste-transportation cask enough to cause a radiation leak, the question becomes how to ensure that nuclear waste bound for Yucca Mountain (or anywhere else, for that matter) is never subjected to such an accident. This opens up a whole other area of debate–some experts contend the shipping risks are minimal, while others assert transportation is the weakest link in the nuclear-waste-management chain.

Jones, the cask designer, points out that rail shipments of spent nuclear fuel are made on dedicated trains, hauling only nuclear-waste casks. That reduces the probability of waste being in a contained, inaccessible environment, such as a train tunnel, along with volatile chemicals and other materials that, when burning, can create extremely high temperatures for a long period of time. (The train that caught fire under Howard Street, for example, was loaded with wood and paper products.) Furthermore, shipping schedules can be coordinated to eliminate the possibility that a dedicated nuclear-waste train and a mixed-freight train with hazardous materials are in the same tunnel at the same time.

“You know, railroads don’t just cut things loose and say we’ll see you at the other end,” Jones says. “They’re very good at tracking these things. So the circumstances that would have to exist in order to have an environment where a spent-fuel train would be in that Baltimore tunnel fire or its equivalent is just extraordinary. A billion to one. It virtually isn’t going to happen, just because that’s the way the business is structured.”

Resnikoff counters that “there is no regulation that says that nuclear-waste shipments will be by dedicated train. It would all be voluntary on the industry’s part. If they’d like to sign a requirement that it will be by dedicated train, that would make a big difference. It costs more money to have a dedicated train. Do they want to put up the money? [That] is the question.”

“It’s perfectly credible that you could have one or two casks of spent fuel in a mixed-freight train going through that Baltimore tunnel,” Halstead maintains. His reasoning is based on cost. In all likelihood, dedicated trains will be used to make large hauls of nuclear waste. But the small amount of waste at Calvert Cliffs–930 metric tons, about 1/10 of 1 percent of the nation’s growing inventory of spent nuclear fuel–may well end up on trains carrying a variety of other materials.

“A contractor working for the Department of Energy who got [its] contract on a low-bid basis would be tempted to shave nickels and dimes by transporting a small number of casks a short distance on a mixed-freight train–say, from Calvert Cliffs maybe up to Harrisburg [Pa.],” Halstead says. There, he speculates, the Calvert Cliffs casks would be transferred to a dedicated train carrying other waste from other reactors in the region.

Calvert Cliffs spokesperson Karl Neddenien cautions that “at this point there is no plan whatsoever as to where and how the shipments will go. It’s wide open.” He notes that Calvert Cliffs is right next to the Chesapeake Bay, so “it may turn out to be safer to put it on a barge to go down to Norfolk, Va., to a railhead. We don’t know.” He acknowledges that Yucca Mountain planning documents do show a proposed route through the Howard Street tunnel but says nothing is set in stone.

And Bullen, of the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, suggests the proposed route may be changed in light of this summer’s events. “I’d be surprised if they let them use that tunnel after the fire,” he says.

Another problem with shipping waste by train is that “there are no federal regulations that govern the selection of shipping routes for rail,” Halstead says. “There are for trucks, and the highway routes are generally selected to minimize shipments through highly populated areas, but there aren’t any equivalent regulations for rail.” He suggests laws that prevent the use of two-way tunnels and require circuitous routing and dedicated trains.

“Why in the world would we allow spent fuel to be shipped in mixed-freight trains in the first place?” Halstead says. “And, secondly, if they were in mixed-freight trains, who would be stupid enough to run them through dangerous areas? Congress should just say, ‘Bang, you will not ship any spent fuel in mixed-freight trains.’ My god, what could be more common sense than that?”

His harsh critique of the existing waste-transport system notwithstanding, Halstead says he is not against nuclear power. “I personally think that there is a very good green case to be made for nuclear power,” he says. But after years of studying the industry and how it’s regulated, he says, he finds it “just pathetic that the people running this business are incapable of doing it technically and in a way that would have public confidence.”

The public is going to have plenty of opportunity to express its confidence, or lack thereof, in the Yucca Mountain Project as it winds through the approval process. Based on NRC’s assessment of the site’s scientific and technical feasibility, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and President Bush are expected to give the plan the green light later this year. Then Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn and that state’s legislature will have an opportunity to veto that decision–something they’re assured to do. Once Nevada rejects it, Congress gets the final say by a simple majority vote of both houses. Along the way, lawsuits brought by the state of Nevada and coalitions of environmental groups will throw up roadblocks. All together, this level of contention is bound to attract big media attention and raise Yucca Mountain’s profile as a national issue.

In the meantime, a major snafu has cast a shadow over Yucca. In late July, the Las Vegas Sun reported that for the last six years, the same Chicago law firm that the Department of Energy has been paying to provide legal services in support of Yucca Mountain has been lobbying on behalf of the NEI to get the project built. The firm, Winston & Strawn, and the NEI severed their relationship shortly after reporters called for comment on the apparent conflict of interest. “This situation,” Guinn wrote to Abraham in an Aug. 1 letter, “presents serious issues concerning conflict of interest and possible bias in the site evaluation process” for Yucca Mountain.

Around the same time, in an incident seized upon by anti-Yucca forces to bolster their case, a leaking cask was discovered on a truck carrying low-level nuclear waste through Nevada. No radioactive material escaped, but the July 30 incident served as a reminder of a leaky container found on a truck in Arizona in 1997–and that one did release radioactivity, leading to a suspension of additional shipments until corrective measures were put in place. Guinn promptly fired off another letter to Abraham: “It appears DOE’s protocol for the transportation of nuclear waste is seriously ineffective in protecting public health and the environment.”

Critics’ concerns about the Yucca Mountain Project aside, most everyone agrees that the technology doesn’t exist today to allow the waste to be stored on-site at the nation’s 72 nuclear-reactor sites for 10,000 years, until it has cooled off enough to be relatively safe. “It’s gotta go someplace, it can’t just stay around forever where it is,” says Robert Jones, the former GE nuclear engineer. As the nation has already invested $6 billion to $8 billion in the Yucca site, Jones contends, we should move forward with it. But it will cost another $50 billion to bring the Yucca site online; rather than continue throwing good money after bad, Nevada’s Sen. Reid contends, the Bush administration should scrap Yucca and start anew, finding another site or developing strategies to safely keep the waste where it is.

It remains to be seen how exercised the public will get over the potential hazards of transporting nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain. But as bad press, including the doubts about safety posed by the Baltimore fire, feeds into the collective realization that shipments are going to pass within a mile of an estimated 60 million U.S. residents over the course of 30 or 40 years, grass-roots opposition is bound to coalesce. If Resnikoff demonstrates that the Howard Street tunnel fire actually did burn at or about 1,500 degrees for more than a few hours–potentially enough to break a cask and cause a radioactive release–Yucca’s opponents’ arsenal will be stocked with a credible, real-life incident that raises serious doubts about the current framework for shipping the waste.

“The issue of waste transportation to Yucca Mountain is lurking on the national horizon,” Nevada Agency for Nuclear Waste Projects executive director Robert Loux wrote in an Aug. 16 guest column in the Las Vegas Sun, “like a thousand-pound gorilla waiting to pounce.”

Some Sewage Runs Through It: The Gwynns Falls Trail is dedicated, but parts of the Gwynns Falls are just plain dead

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, June 5, 2002

“That’s raw sewage right there,” says Rob Johnson, a city sewer supervisor, as he points at the gray, turbid water running through a fetid Southwest Baltimore stream. It’s around 8 a.m. on May 29, and Johnson’s back at the same spot he’s been most every morning for well over a month – at a Yale Heights manhole next to an unnamed tributary of Maiden Choice Run, monitoring a periodic sewer leak until the city can diagnose and fix the problem.

The polluted stream winds through piles of trash and debris and mounds of slime-coated rocks and sediment, fouling the air around homes in Yale Heights and Irvington. Maiden Choice runs clear until it’s joined by this tributary. Downstream, as it tumbles across a historic stone dam in Loudon Park Cemetery – where neighbors say children swim and play in the water – Maiden Choice runs gray and smelly toward the Gwynns Falls and, ultimately, the Chesapeake Bay.

Later that day, the second of three segments of the Gwynns Falls Trail is dedicated in a ceremony filled with optimistic speeches and calls for volunteerism. The bike trail, a decade in the making and four miles long so far, eventually will grow to 14 miles, linking Leakin Park with the Inner Harbor and the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River.

“We’ve got the basis to make something really great here,” an earnest Mayor Martin O’Malley proclaims from the podium. “The health of our parks is a really good indicator of the health of the city.” He goes on to acknowledge that the Gwynns Falls still needs some help: “We need to fix it up, make it more accessible, make it cleaner.”

As the crowd of trail enthusiasts and environmentalists mills about, some talk about how the quality of the Gwynns Falls’ water is tied in with the success of the trail.

“Having a greenway and an ugly stream running through it is not a good idea,” says Ellen Smith, trail coordinator for the nonprofit Parks and People Foundation. “Water quality and trail quality are intertwined.” Opening the trail gets people near the water, she says, creating a greater awareness of the Gwynns Falls’ problems and, hopefully, generating the political will to take measures to solve them.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is also planning to help out. In March , the Corps announced a proposal to conduct numerous sewer-rehabilitation projects in the Maiden Choice Run and Dead Run areas of the Gwynns Falls. The idea has yet to get approval from Army Corps brass, much less any funding, says Chris Spaur, a Corps ecologist. But the plans are ambitious.

For now, the will to improve the Gwynns Falls’ water quality is coming from the federal and state government – in a big way. On April 26, the city, after years of noncompliance with the federal Clean Water Act, agreed to start a massive overhaul of its sewer system. Systemwide, the upgrade will cost about $940 million over 14 years. For the Gwynns Falls watershed this year, the city has allocated nearly $15 million for projects to improve stream quality, including sewer repairs, a debris collector, a storm-water containment pond, and a flood dike.

“The way it is now,” says Spaur of the sewers in the area, “there are little leaks all over the place. The pipes are made of vitrified clay with joints every several feet. Most of them were laid in the 1920s and 1930s, in and around streambeds. After all these years, the joints are leaky and there are lots of cracks.” If realized, the work as currently planned would involve fixing nine miles of sewer pipe and nearly 300 manholes, plus wetland restoration and streambed stabilization.

While these big public-works projects get underway, the Gwynns Falls is under a microscope – literally. Scientists from a variety of disciplines have been concentrating their research on the Gwynns Falls as part of the Baltimore Ecosystem Study, a National Science Foundation investigation into how natural and human-made elements of the urban environment interact. As research continues, available information on the health – or ill health – of the Gwynns Falls will continue to grow.

Rob Johnson, the sewer supervisor, knows firsthand one of the Gwynns Falls’ major problems: chronically leaky sewers. This morning, standing near the Yale Heights manhole as he has for weeks, he can’t do anything but watch as raw sewage trickles into the stream. Someday soon, once he gets his electronic diagnostic device back from La Plata–where he says it’s on loan to help sort out sewer damage from the recent tornado–he’s going to locate this leak.

“And then,” he says confidently, “we’ll come in and fix the whole thing.”

Meanwhile, as work on Phase II of the Gwynns Falls Trail progresses, the city is returning to the already opened first portion of the trail – completed in 1999 – to conduct $150,000 in repairs.

“There’s been some erosion on the trail,” explains Gennady Schwartz, the city Department of Recreation and Parks’ capital-projects chief, “so we need to redo some of the work.”

Trail maintenance – like beach replenishment in Ocean City – is going to be an ongoing cost for the city. “That’s the price to pay, but I think we’re willing to do that,” Schwartz says. An attractive trail that is well-used, he says, “will bring people’s attention to the problems in the watershed.”

The Economy of Scales: A Baltimore lab aims to take the science of growing clean, healthy salt-water fish to the global marketplace

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(Photo by Van Smith)

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, July 24, 2013

The wood-grilled whole dorado, at $34, is the highest-priced dish on the current menu at Pazo, the casually elegant restaurant in Fells Point in Baltimore. Executive chef Mario Cano Catalan gushes about the restaurant’s specimens of the high-value Mediterranean fish, whose market name is gilthead sea bream, a sparkling silver species with a band of yellowish gleam at its head.

The ones Catalan prepares weigh a pound or a little over, he says, and after scaling and gutting them, he seasons them with crushed oregano and sea salt.

But here’s the catch: Pazo’s sea bream are not caught, nor are they from the Mediterranean. They come from a scientific laboratory in the basement of the Columbus Center downtown.

The operation, called the Aquaculture Research Center (ARC), is overseen by Yonathan Zohar, professor and chair of the Department of Marine Biotechnology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology (IMET). Since about 1998, Zohar has been working to perfect land-based technologies called recirculating aquaculture systems for the clean, green production of marine fish on a commercial scale. Every time his lab completes an experimental batch of tank-grown fish, he needs to move them out to make room for the next round. Thus, for several years now, super-fresh lab-grown sea bream, sea bass, and rockfish have been showing up in some of Baltimore’s finer restaurants.

“Look,” Zohar explains, “we are scientists, we are not in the business of sending 100 fish here, 100 fish there. We have 4,000 fish, which is 2 tons of fish, that we need to get rid of, OK?” Zohar says the lab is “trying very hard to work through some of the seafood distributors,” but “we are having difficulties,” so instead ARC sells them to area restaurants and caterers at wholesale prices-for sea bream, he says that amounts to $5 or $6 per pound. “Pazo, Cinghiale, Woodberry Kitchen, McCormick and Schmick’s use them on and off,” he says. “And, yeah, they love them.”

Thus, according to Tony Foreman, who co-owns five Baltimore-area restaurants, including Pazo and Cinghiale, ARC periodically delivers a “cooler full of flipping fish in the kitchen” to Catalan at Pazo.

As Catalan says, “It’s crazy how fresh that fish is-it’s super-fresh,” adding that sea bream from “the European market is good but not as good as the Columbus Center fish.” Foreman points out that, even if he was to have sea bream flown directly from Europe with the utmost speed, “they’re still going to be three, four, five days out of the water,” rather than the hours involved in getting ARC’s fish from tanks to kitchens.

To top it off, Foreman notes enthusiastically that ARC’s fish “are grown to the size that you want too,” which prompts him to make an analogy: “Imagine a farmer down the street that was growing lambs to exactly the size that you want, fresh-killed after your phone call to him.”

Foreman says ARC’s fish have filled the bill like no other supply. “The first job for us is to find high-quality seafood products on a consistent basis,” he says, “and this fulfills it as well or better than anything else I’ve seen, and we’ve tried just about every exotic source to get great seafood as quickly as we possibly could.”

Zohar has his own reason to be excited about ARC’s work with high-value marine fish: a company, Maryland Sustainable Mariculture (MSM), which formed in 2010 and shortly thereafter obtained a licensing agreement to commercialize ARC’s technology, expects to get up and running soon-though, precisely when remains to be seen. And if MSM starts production and finds success, so too will Zohar’s work.

“Everything that I do all my scientific life for the past 35 years,” Zohar explains, “is in the interface between the basic research and the application-that’s actually the mission of IMET, the emphasis is on research, education, and economic development. And with MSM, the idea is that they’ll grow fish, but then they want to take it globally, because you can cut and paste [the technology] in modules anywhere in the world.”

Thus, while today ARC is supplying some of Baltimore’s finest restaurants with sea bream and sea bass, if all goes well, soon MSM will supply seafood distributors and supermarket chains in the region with the same fish on a consistent basis. And then later, if the anticipated success continues, MSM will sublicense the technology wherever someone wants to grow high-value marine fish species for profit.

“We are doing due diligence with one investor now and are negotiating for space in Baltimore City,” says MSM’s Michael Quinn, a name partner at the Baltimore law firm Neuberger, Quinn, Gielen, Rubin & Gibber. “I’m hopeful,” Quinn continues, “that over the next few months we’ll be ready to really nail down the space and start constructing the actual operation” – though he says he’s “too superstitious” to try to pin down a more specific time frame.

Quinn says he and MSM’s David Wolf, a retired executive vice president of the health insurer CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, “together with Dr. Zohar, are leading the drive to commercialize” ARC’s technology and are confident that “once you start to sell fish, the operating profit is positive immediately, because there’s a decent profit margin on the price of fish.” But to do so, the operation needs to produce much more fish than Zohar’s lab is growing now.

“At the Columbus Center,” Quinn explains, “they’ve been producing a couple of tons of fish per year, but if you want to do this on a commercial basis, you need to grow a couple hundred tons of fish per year. So our goal for the first production facility is 200 tons, generating about $3 million per year, and then we’ll scale that up to 300 or 400 tons, because you get a lot of economies of scale at the higher production levels.”

Then, Quinn says, MSM wants other aquaculture companies to buy into its license.

“Once we have a commercial production facility in operation,” Quinn explains, “then there will be plenty of interest from third parties to sublicense the technology for other locations, and the great thing about the technology is that you can use it anywhere. You don’t have to be near the ocean; it’s a clean, self-contained system, and you can put it in a warehouse anywhere, with minimal climate control. You could grow this stuff in Nebraska.”

Still, Silverstein says that while MSM’s anticipated 200-tons-per-year operation is “bigger than anything else that’s out there,” it falls far short of the “3,000-tons-a-year scale that is kind of the break point where you get the economies of scale working in your favor.”

Recirculating aquaculture systems such as ARC’s are “very capital-intensive projects, so the upfront outlay is quite large,” Silverstein says, but the scale that MSM is planning on is “a step toward a commercially productive basis that could convince people that they could do 3,000 tons or more a year”-and, he adds, the sublicensing scheme “makes a lot of sense.”

Silverstein stresses as well that “we need all of these aquaculture systems, all sustainable means of production” to meet growing global demand for seafood at a time of when fisheries around the world are being overexploited. So if, “in the middle of Baltimore, they’re producing clean bream and bass for the regional market using that technology, and with a low carbon footprint for shipping,” he concludes, “it seems like a solution worth pursuing.”

The world’s fisheries are in a state of crisis, a problem that has been becoming increasingly clear with each passing year. Even as more fish are captured to feed a growing number of people eating more fish-world population, at about 7 billion today, is predicted to be between 8.3 and 10.9 billion by 2050, while per capita fish consumption has continuously risen, about doubling to almost 20 kilograms since the 1960s – authorities fear the needed production of captured fish may collapse, creating a global food crisis.

As the United Nations (UN) Food and Agriculture Organization stated in the 2012 edition of its biannual report State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture, analyses showing that more than 85 percent of seafood landings are of species that are either fully exploited, overexploited, or depleted or recovering “suggest a global system that is overstressed, reducing in biodiversity and in imminent danger of collapse.” Despite these pressures, the system thus far has “been surprisingly resilient in terms of output and food value,” the FAO continued, even though “harvesting has been increasingly inefficient.”

The picture is so bleak that the UN Environmental Programme predicts that by 2050, absent major worldwide reforms, overfishing will have combined with the effects of climate change to cause the collapse of all major commercial fisheries. Meanwhile, fish are contaminated with such toxic levels of mercury – a ubiquitous byproduct of an industrialized society – that, according to a recent study surveying fish samples from across the globe, eating one 6-ounce portion of fish per month exceeds U.S. Environmental Protection Agency human-health guidelines for exposure to the heavy metal.

Aquaculture – growing fish in pens and cages in the sea, in coastal lagoons, or in tanks or ponds on land – has long been the strategy to insure against the depletion of wild stocks. But Mark Spalding, president of the Ocean Foundation in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit that works to protect and restore the world’s oceans, says the effort has been falling short.

“In order to meet the world’s growing demand for fish,” Spalding explains, “aquaculture, which we now think is where more than 50 percent of fish come from, has to grow at 10 percent per year going forward, but it’s actually growing at 6 percent and decelerating.” And the key question, he says, is “which kinds of aquaculture can best get the job done.” Trying to answer that question is what Zohar’s aquaculture lab does.

Spalding visited ARC in 2011 and found it “quite impressive,” he says, “because they’re really trying to test a whole lot of things all at the same time.” A widely used form of aquaculture called floating net-pens – a very descriptive term, since the fish are grown in large, netted pens floating in coastal or ocean waters – has a “laundry list of problems,” says Spalding. “The fish escape and crossbreed with wild animals, they transfer diseases, they pollute the water with their waste and their feed,” he explains. The tank-based technology that Zohar’s lab has been developing “solves a lot of the things that have always concerned folks” about the practice.

Taking it commercial, Spalding continues, opens “a whole other debate over whether it should be on a smaller scale near a market, so the carbon footprint is very low, or a very large-scale production facility with shipping.”

In the end, Spalding predicts “we are going to continue to see wild-caught fish at the very highest end of the market, like the bluefin tuna, and in subsistence-fishing for poor people all over the world. But if aquaculture can supply the middle – the standard consumer, the restaurants – so that we’re not taking biomass out of the ocean and out of the mouths of poor people and out of the mouths of other predators in the ocean, we maybe can do this right and reduce the number of stressors on the ocean in the process of finding these alternative ways to grow fish.”

In Baltimore, Spalding continues, “the nice thing about Zohar’s facility is it’s very much like a lab operation, where you are really getting data as well as growing fish, and that will allow us to decide how to design this if you do take it commercial. He’s testing the different boundaries of which species will work, and which will not. But until we solve some of these things that he’s working on, aquaculture is not going to save the ocean-but we need it to.”

The global fisheries crisis is a given to Zohar, who, while sitting in his Columbus Center office during a recent visit, started out an interview by saying, “So, you don’t need the introduction of, you know, we are running out of fish and we are overfishing in the wild and the wild stocks cannot really sustain for very long if we continue the same practices and there are many fish that are actually already fished out.” Accepting that there’s a real crisis, he’s instead focused on aquaculture solutions that can help abate the problem-and also correct problems that earlier aquaculture solutions created, such as those Spalding mentioned involving floating net-pens.

“I was part of the early team that developed this aquaculture technology,” Zohar says, referring to the pens, “and the problem is, it has been criticized for not being environmentally responsible.”

First off, the fish waste pollutes the waters where they are raised with dissolved nutrients and solid organic waste, Zohar explains. But “a big, big problem,” he continues, “is when fish escape from the cages and they interbreed with wild stock and displace them, so all of the sudden the wild stocks are not wild anymore; they are replaced by a selectively bred farm animal, and the environment, the whole ecosystem is affected.” Finally, for the fish themselves, the pens create a stressful, unhealthful existence.

“They are exposed to pathogens, to PCBs, to heavy metals,” Zohar says, “and sometimes there are harmful algal blooms around them, and their immune system[s] [are] compromised and they get infected by parasites and diseases. From the fish’s point of view, those systems are not optimal.”

The solution, Zohar says, is that aquaculture needs to be done in closed systems on land with recirculating water – and perfecting that concept has been Zohar’s aim for about the last 15 years. “To be both ecologically responsible and environmentally sustainable, as well as economically feasible in the long term,” he explains, “aquaculture more and more is going to go land-based. And to do that, number one, you need to close the life cycle, with a consistent, year-round, reliable egg supply or juvenile supply” that can be raised to market size-and Zohar’s lab has done just that for a number of high-value marine species, including sea bream, sea bass, and rockfish.

But to be truly sustainable, Zohar says, “our goal was to develop a completely contained recirculating system that is fully bio-secure,” meaning no fish can escape, “and as near zero-waste discharge to the environment as possible. And our system addresses all of those issues: There is no organic waste, no possibility of escape, and the conditions are being kept optimal all the time, because the system is recirculating and completely controlled and monitored to accommodate warm-water species, cold-water species, higher salinities, lower salinities, to allow optimal performances all the time. And there is no disease, no heavy metals, no toxins, no algal blooms. The fish are as clean and green as it can get. And the system is very generic, so we can tailor conditions to accommodate any species of interest by its economical considerations, as opposed to geographical ones. The collection of fish species we have downstairs in the basement, it’s almost like a zoo.”

Zohar is realistic about the challenges his lab’s system faces because of high upfront costs – as Silverstein points out, the high-tech capital costs don’t come cheap. But Zohar – and MSM, which is poised to put real money behind Zohar’s technology – believes it can be overcome because it produces a reliable supply of healthy, high-value fish quickly, so once the batches start reaching the marketplace, the money keeps rolling in, and because some of the operating costs-fish feed and shipping, for instance-are lower than with net-pen facilities.

“There is a lot of argument about economic feasibility,” he explains, because “your initial investment is more. But because the conditions are optimal, we really grow the fish to market size much faster – like in half the time. And the fish are much more efficiently using the feed” because they are in tanks and can eat all the feed they are given, as opposed to the net-pen fish, who eat what they can before much of it sinks beyond their reach. “For the sea bream and sea bass,” he adds, “your only competition when you commercialize it are fish that are being flown in from the Mediterranean, and they are like five to eight days post-harvest by the time they arrive. But our fish are as fresh as you can get. We harvest them, and two or three hours later, they are at the restaurant.”

A critical aspect of the technology, Zohar explains, are the filters the lab has developed that keep the artificial seawater pristine without creating any waste. “We start with city water,” he explains, “and we simulate all of the ingredients of seawater, and then we use microbes in these biofilters, and the water circulates very quickly through the microbes. They use the dissolved waste, mainly ammonia and nitrites and sulfites and all of this kind of thing to live, and they produce free nitrogen, which is what much of air is.” So the nitrogen is simply released into the air.

The solid waste “produces sludge,” Zohar continues, “and freshwater aquaculture operations collect it and use it as a fertilizer on fields, but this is not environmentally sustainable, really, because those nutrients are going to end up in your watershed one way or another. But you can’t do that with our salty sludge. So we use methanogens, these marine microbes that use organic matter and convert it to methane. We optimized this filter for many, many years, and very efficiently they convert 96 percent of our sludge to fuel-grade methane, and then you can fire a Bunsen burner or a methane-driven generator right out of the fish tank. We estimate that 15 percent of the operation’s energy costs can be offset in this way.”

And sure enough, down in the basement laboratory, three Bunsen burners are sparked, burning off the methane. The operation whirs with the sounds of pumps and filters aside a series of tanks that fill much of the 17,000 square-foot laboratory, each ranging from 4 to 18 feet in diameter and 500 to 5,000 gallons in volume. In one of them, a school of sea bream swim in circles. I’m handed four of them that had been harvested earlier that day, to cook later.

“We started with more than 2,000 fish in there,” says Keiko Saito, one of IMET’s scientists, “but we started to harvest them in March, so now there’s about 1,200.”

“You see the water in these tanks,” adds Nick Hammond, IMET’s assistant director. “Well, it was put in here like a year ago, and they haven’t had to add water. So it’s very, very efficient on the water recycling.”

“And look how beautiful the water is,” says Zohar. “And look how beautiful the fish are! You saw the fish we gave you, the eyes-you can’t get any fresher than that.”

I took home the sea bream Zohar gave me and immediately froze them, sacrificing some of the freshness for the convenience of preparing them later. After about a week, I took them to a cabin in West Virginia, scaled and cleaned them, stuffed them with fresh-picked wild raspberries and a lime wedge, and slow-grilled them under tin foil over a smoky outdoor fire.

Four adults and four children marveled at the rich, smoky flavor of their bountiful flesh – Pazo’s Catalan says they are 85 percent meat and 15 percent head and bones. Served with corn on the cob, and carrots and radishes cooked in peanut oil, butter, and balsamic vinegar with a dash of salt, our bellies filled so quickly that we had one sea bream left over, enjoyed cold later.

The fact that we hadn’t just exceeded the health advisory for mercury was a bonus, but one of the guests, after hearing where they came from, called them “frankenfish,” since they’d been grown by scientists in a laboratory.

Foreman, the consummate restaurateur, bristles at this suggestion.

“I’ve had dorado in Corsica, Sicily, Spain, France,” Foreman says indignantly and continues to rattle off a long list of Mediterranean locales where he’s enjoyed fresh sea bream, “and these are as good or better.” He continues by noting that the “great shame of the seafood distribution in the U.S. is that you’re eating week- and two-week-old stuff, half-frozen, chemically treated.” But “the freshness and consistency” of the Columbus Center fish “is amazing. They are not frankenfish, they are the fish.”

MSM’s Quinn, when asked if the “frankenfish factor” could present a marketing hurdle when his fish go commercial, says essentially the same thing as Foreman: “They’re not frankenfish, they’re just fish.” But, he adds, “they are grown in much happier, healthier conditions than the fish you are buying right now. If you could catch them any more in the wild, you would still have heavy metals, and with these you have none of the concerns about toxins, drugs, and health that you do need to worry about when you are buying those fish from the supermarkets that come from the net-pens. They’re just fish, like any other fish, but better.”

Overcoming the potential for consumers to think of these fish as something unnatural “is primarily an education problem,” Quinn continues. “From an ethical consumer standpoint,” he says, “it really is the only thing that makes sense. You can’t catch these fish in the wild anymore, net-pens have horrible environmental records, and the fish you’re getting from the supermarkets aren’t especially desirable anyway. This helps solve the pollution problem to produce a fish that is completely natural, yet completely clean. And while the operation is high-tech in a way, it is not so high-tech that you can’t do this any place and feed a lot of people a very high-value protein.

“This is part of why I stuck with it,” Quinn concludes. “It has to happen. We can’t keep doing what we’re doing, it’s not right. This is the better way.”

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.

Something in the Water: Mallows Bay

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To paddle safely in the waters of Mallows Bay, where a ghost fleet of ships have long been decaying into the Potomac River near Nanjemoy, MD, it is best to view it as one big navigational hazard. I brought my Kevlar kayak for my maiden visit on Nov. 18, a placid chilly day, and my newly gel-coated beauty emerged unscathed. Next time, though, I’ll bring a heavy-duty plastic kayak just to be safe.

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The issue is all the rusty metal poking up out of the water. About the only remains left of the many decayed ships littering the river bottom here are the large rusty fasteners that used to hold them together. Many are pretty visible today, jutting up out of the water’s surface. But many more are submerged, poised to impale or gouge a passing vessel’s hull.

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Turns out, you’re supposed to kayak around the fleet, not through their watery graveyard, as I did. It’s all there in the handy map and guide that I neglected to pick up at the visitor’s shed and peruse before embarking: the whole area inside the 2.5-mile self-guided loop is shaded and labeled with a “warning” symbol. “Dangerous metal objects lie below the surface of the water,” the guide explains, “may not be visible.”

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So on the first outing I broke the rules. I’d never have done it if the day had been windy and the waters rough. In the calm, though, water-borne photography was possible, so now I have a whole slew of images of what’s left of the burned-out fleet of World War I-era wooden steamships, and the uniquely protected ecology their presence has created at Mallows Bay, creating opportunities for flora, fauna, and errant paddlers.

 

Hot Line: The Feds Are Considering Shipping Spent Nuclear Fuel Through the Howard Street Tunnel. Are They Playing With Fire?

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By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Sept. 12, 2001

(Photo: commons.wikimedia.org, image of a test rail car carrying a spent nuclear fuel shipping cask.)

For a few days in mid-July, a few dozen train cars carrying hazardous chemicals and other materials burned out of control beneath the city. After a century of barely being known even to Baltimoreans, the Howard Street tunnel was suddenly in the national spotlight.

As an event, the tunnel fire was both scary and enthralling. Local residents and commuters were inundated with news of gridlock, a water-main break, and possibly toxic smoke. TV sets all over the country glimmered with images of menacing plumes and flooded streets, coupled with reports that the too-hot-to-fight inferno was disrupting not only rail traffic, but Internet services via cables that also run through the tunnel. But as normalcy was restored in the ensuing days and weeks, coverage tailed off. Today, for most folks, the fire is just a memory.

Lost in the immediacy of the moment and the disinterest of its aftermath are two questions that may ensure the Howard Street tunnel fire’s lasting legacy: What if nuclear waste had been among the freight in the hottest part of the fire? Could radioactivity have been released, contaminating people and property in the heart of a major East Coast city?

The question isn’t merely theoretical. A long-studied proposal for handling the nation’s growing inventory of nuclear waste by carting it from points around the country to a permanent repository in Nevada’s Yucca Mountain is expected to reach President Bush’s desk later this year. If the project gets a presidential thumbs-up and survives the resulting legal challenges, spent nuclear fuel will be a frequent passenger on the nation’s highways and railroads for the next three or four decades, en route to the Nevada desert. Plans drawn up by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) call for carrying used-up fuel assemblies from Constellation Energy’s Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant in Southern Maryland by train through the Howard Street tunnel.

When it comes to managing the potential of large-scale risks such as nuclear accidents, examining extreme hypothetical situations–the possibility, for instance, of nuclear waste in the Howard Street tunnel fire–is crucial to finding ways to avoid disasters. Thus, nuclear-transportation experts have started to examine and debate what they have dubbed “the Baltimore fire.” Until the actual conditions of the fire–the top temperature reached, how long it stayed that hot–are established, much of the talk is necessarily speculative. But the central questions posed by the fire are already known: How sturdy are the containers used to transport nuclear waste? How foolproof are the methods of moving them safely by train?

Critics contend that the containers, called “transportation casks,” haven’t been tested enough to know their true strength; cost, rather than safety, is the chief priority in designing nuclear-transportation plans, they say. The nuclear-energy industry points out the exemplary safety record of waste shipments and outlines the stringent measures taken to guard against reasonably foreseeable dangers. However the argument turns out, it’s a good bet that as the Yucca Mountain Project heats up, the Howard Street tunnel fire will be national news once again.

Sitting in her Mount Washington home July 18, Gwen Dubois listened anxiously to reports of a tunnel fire downtown. Her teenage son had already left on the light rail for a double-header at Oriole Park. “On any given day, he’s as likely to be at Camden Yards as he is to be home, despite what’s happened to the Orioles this season,” she says, recalling her worries in an interview later that month. Knowing that freight trains often carry chemicals that can produce toxic smoke when burned, Dubois was “concerned about whether his health was at risk.” When “later on I found out that he was stopped on North Avenue and came home, I was greatly relieved,” she says.

Dubois’ relief about the fire was short-lived. An internist, she sits on the board of directors of Physicians for Social Responsibility, a nonprofit group based in Washington that works to raise public awareness of nuclear issues. On her house hangs a large banner reading nuclear-free zone. Attuned as she is to nuclear risks, her thoughts quickly broadened from the chemical fire to larger issues.

“Within hours,” she says, “I was thinking, If this were a train carrying radioactive waste, what kind of exposures would there be? Who would be monitoring? Would we even know? What about the psychological impact on people who are afraid that they’ve been exposed? So, as bad as this fire was, I thought it would have been just truly a catastrophe if the train had carried nuclear waste. . . .

“As time goes by, the other issue is, it’s going to become more and more likely that trains will contain nuclear waste, and nuclear waste carried in containers that haven’t been adequately tested. And also, this train wreck–the temperatures were extremely high, high enough to cause burning of nuclear waste and make some of the radioactivity airborne and carried over a wider area,” she continues. “So all of the specifics about this train fire–the temperature, the difficulty getting to it, the fact that it was in an urban area where a lot of people were potentially exposed–all of these factors are so relevant. If the cargo was radioactive, the implications would have really been just mammoth.”

Dubois’ mind was not the only one turning to the potential nuclear risks posed by the Howard Street tunnel fire. U.S. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.)–the Senate majority whip and, like every other elected official in Nevada, a strident opponent of the Yucca Mountain plan–took to the Senate floor the day after the fire began to offer his take on the dangers.

“People think hydrochloric acid is bad, which it is,” Reid said, referring to one of the hazardous materials carried by the burning train in Baltimore, “but not as bad as nuclear waste. A speck the size of a pinpoint would kill a person. And we’re talking about transporting some 70,000 tons of it all across America.”

Reid enlisted the aid of Maryland Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Paul Sarbanes in promptly convincing his colleagues to do what politicians often do when drastic accidents occur: order a study. On July 23, as charred rail cars were being removed from the Howard Street tunnel, the Senate voted 96-0 to attach an amendment to the U.S. Department of Transportation appropriations bill requiring DOT to conduct a top-down assessment of the nation’s system for transporting hazardous and radioactive waste.

Reid’s actions in the wake of the Baltimore fire caused a flurry of interest–back in Nevada. “Baltimore’s experience should be reason enough to comprehend that Yucca Mountain isn’t just Nevada’s problem, it would be a land mine for any city or town that had the misfortune of being located near the path that would take nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain,” the daily Las Vegas Sun editorialized on July 25 under the headline “Baltimore derailment a bad omen.”

Also quick to pick up on the nuke-train angle was the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, a Washington-based activist group. The organization’s nuclear-waste specialist, Kevin Kamps, shot off a press release on July 21, revealing that a U.S. Department of Energy assessment of the Yucca Mountain Project included route maps that showed nuclear-waste shipments going by rail from Calvert Cliffs through the Howard Street tunnel. Kamps spent the next two weeks touring the country, garnering news coverage of this new twist to the Yucca Mountain debate.

Pro-Yucca forces dismiss attempts to play up the Baltimore fire as a nuclear-waste-transportation issue. The day after Reid made his speech on the Senate floor, the industry issued its response. “It is really unfair for Sen. Reid to use this as an opportunity to make a case against Yucca Mountain by scaring the public,” said Mitch Singer, a spokesperson for the D.C.-based Nuclear Industry Institute (NEI). Sarah Berk, spokesperson for U.S. Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), told reporters that Reid’s response to the tunnel fire is “a misguided and misinformed effort to connect something that should not be connected. The fact of the matter is, if that train had been carrying nuclear components, it would have been protected in containers that would have prevented this sort of a spill.” Berk stressed the nuclear-power industry’s “phenomenal safety record” and its ongoing efforts “to develop safe and responsible methods to handle nuclear waste.”

The NEI’s Web site (www.nei.org) points out that nuclear-waste shipments are small, carefully managed, and do have a remarkable safety record: In nearly 40 years of transporting spent nuclear fuel, there have been 2,900 shipments and only eight accidents. Only one was serious, and none resulted in a radioactive release.

In Maryland, shipments of high-level radioactive materials have occurred without incident. Twenty-eight thousand pounds of radioactive material passed through Maryland in four shipments during July and August 2000, according to the Maryland State Police, which is notified of such hauls, and since 1996 approximately 15 kilograms of spent nuclear fuel were trucked through the state in five separate shipments.

In addition, an NRC report shows that between 1993 and 1997 154.8 kilograms of spent nuclear fuel were shipped out of state from the Dundalk Marine Terminal, Calvert Cliffs, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg. Another 17.1 kilograms were sent to Dundalk for export.

The key to safely transporting spent nuclear rods is the survivability of the casks. The NRC, according to NEI’s Web site, requires that transportation casks “pass a series of hypothetical accident conditions that create forces greater than the containers would experience in actual accidents. The same container must, in sequence, undergo 1) a 30-foot free fall onto an unyielding surface, 2) a 40-inch fall onto a steel rod six inches in diameter, 3) a 30-minute exposure to fire at 1,475 degrees Fahrenheit that engulfs the entire container, and 4) submergence under three feet of water for eight hours.”

What the NEI site doesn’t point out is that never has an actual, full-size cask been subjected to this battery of assaults. Quarter-scale models have been used as the basis for computer models that predict how an actual cask would perform in extreme circumstances. But no actual full-scale testing has been conducted, because subjecting a 130-ton cask to those conditions is logistically challenging and very expensive–probably near $20 million per test. Thus–as Yucca Mountain Project critics like to point out–there is no real-life basis for concluding the casks can survive such extreme circumstances.

The third element in the NRC’s list of standards–the 30-minute, all-engulfing fire at 1,475 degrees Fahrenheit–is the one that turned attention to the Baltimore blaze. Firefighters here reported whole train cars aglow from the heat of the tunnel fire. On the second day of the fire, Baltimore City Fire Department officials told the press that the temperature in the tunnel was as high as 1,500 degrees. If the hottest part of the fire rose above 1,475 degrees for more than 30 minutes–as appears likely, though technical analysis has yet to prove it–then the Howard Street tunnel fire achieved a rare intensity that gives pause to nuclear-waste- transportation experts.

Questions to NEI’s press office about whether casks are designed to survive a fire as intense as Baltimore’s was reported to be were referred to Robert Jones, a Los Gatos, Calif., nuclear engineer who designed casks for General Electric for 13 years and now works as a nuclear-industry consultant. Jones was skeptical about whether the Baltimore fire actually exceeded the design standard for casks. If it did, he says, it would be a singular event. Jones cites a government study showing that the probability of an actual railroad fire exceeding the regulatory conditions is less than 1/10 of 1 percent.

“I’ll wager that 1,500 degrees did not exist totally for a day and a half” in the Howard Street tunnel, Jones says. He acknowledges, though, that if it did, “there’s a potential for some release. But we’re not talking about this thing blowing up.” Rather, he explains, “the leakage, if it was to occur, is likely to be a radioactive gas that would be dispersed.”

Daniel Bullen, who sits on the federal Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board , concurs with Jones. “Would there potentially be a release? Yes,” says Bullen, an Iowa State University engineering professor who used to run that school’s now-closed nuclear-reactor laboratory. Foreseeing the questions his answer raises, he fires off a quick interview with himself: “Would it be a significant release? Probably not. Would it be hard to find? No, because radiation is pretty easy to find. Would it be difficult to remediate? Maybe. You might have to move a lot of dirt and clean up a lot of surface and stuff. But would it be significantly life-threatening? Probably not.”

“Oh, this guy’s just shooting from the hip,” Marvin Resnikoff says upon hearing Bullen’s characterization of the effects of a long-burning 1,500-degree fire. Resnikoff, a physicist, heads Radioactive Waste Management Associates, a New York-based consulting firm that specializes in analyzing nuclear-waste safety. The state of Nevada recently hired him to look at the Howard Street tunnel fire and report on its implications for safe transport of spent nuclear fuel. The report is due to be completed this month; when it’s released, Resnikoff asserts, “we’ll have much more definitive answers.”

In the meantime, Resnikoff offers a glimpse of what he’s learning. If the fire turns out to be as hot as reported–and his analysis will establish whether or not it was–then a potential release would include other materials besides radioactive gas.

“There are particulates,” he says. “We are concerned about cesium 137 because it is semivolatile. And we are concerned about cobalt 60, to a lesser extent, because that material is on the outside” of spent-fuel assemblies and could be released more quickly in the event of a leak. Cesium 137 and cobalt 60 are radioactive carcinogens that have half-lives of 30 and five years, respectively, so they represent a long-term cancer risk. They emit gamma rays, which, according to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fact sheet, “can easily pass completely through the human body or be absorbed by tissue, thus constituting a radiation hazard for the entire body.” Based on the weather conditions that existed during the Baltimore fire, Resnikoff estimates that a radioactive smoke plume exiting the southern terminus of the tunnel would have spread perilously close to Camden Yards.

Until the report is concluded and released, Resnikoff declines to give any more details of his concerns about what could have happened if nuclear waste had been in the Howard Street tunnel fire. Robert Halstead, transportation adviser for the Nevada Office of Nuclear Projects, which hired Resnikoff to study the Baltimore fire, is much more candid.

If the fire was hot enough for a long enough time to compromise the casks and cause a leak, Halstead says, “you are going to be concerned with this plume of smoke carrying cesium and some other fission products. Obviously it’s bad if you breathe it, but also, because it is a big-time emitter of gamma radiation, there is direct radiation from the plume. If anything’s been deposited on the ground, it’s irradiating the area also. It would cause a very big cleanup problem.

“So you basically would face this terrible choice,” Halstead says. “You could easily spend in excess of $5 [billion] to $10 billion to clean the area. Or you could simply quarantine the area. The real answer on this is that you are probably going to have a situation where you’ve spent money rather than lives. There probably aren’t going to be thousands of latent cancer fatalities, but you are going to have to spend hundreds of millions or billions of dollars to prevent that. That’s a pretty fair ballpark [figure].”

If Resnikoff concludes that the Baltimore fire actually could damage a nuclear-waste-transportation cask enough to cause a radiation leak, the question becomes how to ensure that nuclear waste bound for Yucca Mountain (or anywhere else, for that matter) is never subjected to such an accident. This opens up a whole other area of debate–some experts contend the shipping risks are minimal, while others assert transportation is the weakest link in the nuclear-waste-management chain.

Jones, the cask designer, points out that rail shipments of spent nuclear fuel are made on dedicated trains, hauling only nuclear-waste casks. That reduces the probability of waste being in a contained, inaccessible environment, such as a train tunnel, along with volatile chemicals and other materials that, when burning, can create extremely high temperatures for a long period of time. (The train that caught fire under Howard Street, for example, was loaded with wood and paper products.) Furthermore, shipping schedules can be coordinated to eliminate the possibility that a dedicated nuclear-waste train and a mixed-freight train with hazardous materials are in the same tunnel at the same time.

“You know, railroads don’t just cut things loose and say we’ll see you at the other end,” Jones says. “They’re very good at tracking these things. So the circumstances that would have to exist in order to have an environment where a spent-fuel train would be in that Baltimore tunnel fire or its equivalent is just extraordinary. A billion to one. It virtually isn’t going to happen, just because that’s the way the business is structured.”

Resnikoff counters that “there is no regulation that says that nuclear-waste shipments will be by dedicated train. It would all be voluntary on the industry’s part. If they’d like to sign a requirement that it will be by dedicated train, that would make a big difference. It costs more money to have a dedicated train. Do they want to put up the money? [That] is the question.”

“It’s perfectly credible that you could have one or two casks of spent fuel in a mixed-freight train going through that Baltimore tunnel,” Halstead maintains. His reasoning is based on cost. In all likelihood, dedicated trains will be used to make large hauls of nuclear waste. But the small amount of waste at Calvert Cliffs–930 metric tons, about 1/10 of 1 percent of the nation’s growing inventory of spent nuclear fuel–may well end up on trains carrying a variety of other materials.

“A contractor working for the Department of Energy who got [its] contract on a low-bid basis would be tempted to shave nickels and dimes by transporting a small number of casks a short distance on a mixed-freight train–say, from Calvert Cliffs maybe up to Harrisburg [Pa.],” Halstead says. There, he speculates, the Calvert Cliffs casks would be transferred to a dedicated train carrying other waste from other reactors in the region.

Calvert Cliffs spokesperson Karl Neddenien cautions that “at this point there is no plan whatsoever as to where and how the shipments will go. It’s wide open.” He notes that Calvert Cliffs is right next to the Chesapeake Bay, so “it may turn out to be safer to put it on a barge to go down to Norfolk, Va., to a railhead. We don’t know.” He acknowledges that Yucca Mountain planning documents do show a proposed route through the Howard Street tunnel but says nothing is set in stone.

And Bullen, of the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, suggests the proposed route may be changed in light of this summer’s events. “I’d be surprised if they let them use that tunnel after the fire,” he says.

Another problem with shipping waste by train is that “there are no federal regulations that govern the selection of shipping routes for rail,” Halstead says. “There are for trucks, and the highway routes are generally selected to minimize shipments through highly populated areas, but there aren’t any equivalent regulations for rail.” He suggests laws that prevent the use of two-way tunnels and require circuitous routing and dedicated trains.

“Why in the world would we allow spent fuel to be shipped in mixed-freight trains in the first place?” Halstead says. “And, secondly, if they were in mixed-freight trains, who would be stupid enough to run them through dangerous areas? Congress should just say, ‘Bang, you will not ship any spent fuel in mixed-freight trains.’ My god, what could be more common sense than that?”

His harsh critique of the existing waste-transport system notwithstanding, Halstead says he is not against nuclear power. “I personally think that there is a very good green case to be made for nuclear power,” he says. But after years of studying the industry and how it’s regulated, he says, he finds it “just pathetic that the people running this business are incapable of doing it technically and in a way that would have public confidence.”

The public is going to have plenty of opportunity to express its confidence, or lack thereof, in the Yucca Mountain Project as it winds through the approval process. Based on NRC’s assessment of the site’s scientific and technical feasibility, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and President Bush are expected to give the plan the green light later this year. Then Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn and that state’s legislature will have an opportunity to veto that decision–something they’re assured to do. Once Nevada rejects it, Congress gets the final say by a simple majority vote of both houses. Along the way, lawsuits brought by the state of Nevada and coalitions of environmental groups will throw up roadblocks. All together, this level of contention is bound to attract big media attention and raise Yucca Mountain’s profile as a national issue.

In the meantime, a major snafu has cast a shadow over Yucca. In late July, the Las Vegas Sun reported that for the last six years, the same Chicago law firm that the Department of Energy has been paying to provide legal services in support of Yucca Mountain has been lobbying on behalf of the NEI to get the project built. The firm, Winston & Strawn, and the NEI severed their relationship shortly after reporters called for comment on the apparent conflict of interest. “This situation,” Guinn wrote to Abraham in an Aug. 1 letter, “presents serious issues concerning conflict of interest and possible bias in the site evaluation process” for Yucca Mountain.

Around the same time, in an incident seized upon by anti-Yucca forces to bolster their case, a leaking cask was discovered on a truck carrying low-level nuclear waste through Nevada. No radioactive material escaped, but the July 30 incident served as a reminder of a leaky container found on a truck in Arizona in 1997–and that one did release radioactivity, leading to a suspension of additional shipments until corrective measures were put in place. Guinn promptly fired off another letter to Abraham: “It appears DOE’s protocol for the transportation of nuclear waste is seriously ineffective in protecting public health and the environment.”

Critics’ concerns about the Yucca Mountain Project aside, most everyone agrees that the technology doesn’t exist today to allow the waste to be stored on-site at the nation’s 72 nuclear-reactor sites for 10,000 years, until it has cooled off enough to be relatively safe. “It’s gotta go someplace, it can’t just stay around forever where it is,” says Robert Jones, the former GE nuclear engineer. As the nation has already invested $6 billion to $8 billion in the Yucca site, Jones contends, we should move forward with it. But it will cost another $50 billion to bring the Yucca site online; rather than continue throwing good money after bad, Nevada’s Sen. Reid contends, the Bush administration should scrap Yucca and start anew, finding another site or developing strategies to safely keep the waste where it is.

It remains to be seen how exercised the public will get over the potential hazards of transporting nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain. But as bad press, including the doubts about safety posed by the Baltimore fire, feeds into the collective realization that shipments are going to pass within a mile of an estimated 60 million U.S. residents over the course of 30 or 40 years, grass-roots opposition is bound to coalesce. If Resnikoff demonstrates that the Howard Street tunnel fire actually did burn at or about 1,500 degrees for more than a few hours–potentially enough to break a cask and cause a radioactive release–Yucca’s opponents’ arsenal will be stocked with a credible, real-life incident that raises serious doubts about the current framework for shipping the waste.

“The issue of waste transportation to Yucca Mountain is lurking on the national horizon,” Nevada Agency for Nuclear Waste Projects executive director Robert Loux wrote in an Aug. 16 guest column in the Las Vegas Sun, “like a thousand-pound gorilla waiting to pounce.”

Pardon Our Filth: City Sewage Keeps Flowing Into The Bay While Baltimore’s Sewer System Gets a Billion-Dollar Fix

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By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Dec. 19, 2007

David Schmidt is president of a marine-supply company in Hanover, Pa., who keeps a boat in a slip at Canton Cove Marina, where Linwood Avenue ends at the harbor. As he approaches the marina gate and gangway on Sept. 12, he notices me and another paddler holding back gags as we nose our kayaks toward the storm water that empties into the harbor beneath the waterfront promenade in front of two condominium buildings there. Schmidt sees us look down at the gray-colored water we’re floating in, into the darkness of the tunnels where it’s coming from, and then back down at the water.

“It’s raw sewage coming out of the storm drain,” Schmidt says flatly as he walks along the dock. “I’m down here all the time for the last five years, and it’s been going like that the whole time. It’s not always this bad, but it’s always bad. God forbid anybody fall in. You should see it when it rains.”

There’s been no rain to speak of for weeks, and yet here is enough sewage to turn the water at the marina a striking shade of gray and to thoroughly stink up the surrounding blocks. It’s entering the harbor out of a drain outlet, or “outfall,” that’s designed to funnel runoff from city streets and pavements when it rains, not the waste water that the city’s sewage system funnels to its water treatment plants. If there had been a good, hard rain, then one might expect some sewage in the storm drain; the sewer pipes running down streambeds tend to get hit by large objects in storms, sometimes getting blown open and causing nasty messes downstream. But there had been no storm. There had to be some other explanation.

Schmidt keeps talking. He’s indignant but resigned, complaining that he pumps out his boat sewage so it won’t get in the Chesapeake Bay, as the law says he must, and the city should, too. But apparently, he concludes, the city would rather keep paying fines than obey the law.

Schmidt has many ways to complain about the odor, perhaps because that’s the main topic of the conversations he has with others who rent slips here. “I got my boat sealed up so I can go down below and get away from it,” Schmidt says, and points to other boats similarly protected. “But you never really can. That restaurant”–he points at the nearby Bay Café–“keeps its patio awnings zipped up on this side because of it. That pool next to it [at Tindeco Wharf] is hardly used, most of the time. Look at all those condo windows,” he says, gesturing at the Canton Cove building. “Nice weather, but they’re closed up tight. Same thing. It’s the smell.”

Schmidt walks onto his boat and goes below, and we glide away in our kayaks, marveling that fish are jumping just 50 yards away from the foul outfall. What’s more, a quarter-mile away, at the bulkhead of the Korean War Memorial Park, men are fishing for those fish.

The Linwood Avenue outfall has been polluting the harbor with sewage, on and off, for a long time. Schmidt’s account confirms what I’ve occasionally observed firsthand while kayaking or walking by here since the late 1990s. The federal Clean Water Act calls for all U.S. waters to be returned to swimmable and fishable conditions, and while fish sometimes jump near here, swimming, while never advisable, would at times be suicidal. So the next day, I call the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Justice, which enforce the Clean Water Act, to find out whether or not the sewage coming into the harbor from under Linwood Avenue is somehow allowed. After a couple of short back-and-forths about what was observed, it quickly becomes clear that it is not.

“We’d be very interested in investigating,” adds Angela McFadden, a high-ranking pollution enforcement officer at the EPA, in a Sept. 24 phone conversation, “because I am not aware of any continuous discharges of untreated sewage going on.”

The EPA and the DOJ are the plaintiffs, along with the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), in a Clean Water Act lawsuit in U.S. District Court filed against the city of Baltimore a decade ago over its illegally leaky sewer system. Five years ago, a “consent decree” was entered in the matter. Under the decree, the city must spend almost a billion dollars over 14 years, starting in late 2002, to get its sewer system into compliance with the federal Clean Water Act. So far, with less than a decade to go, the city has spent nearly $260 million and has repeatedly raised water-and-sewer rates to pay for it.

A few weeks pass of phone tag punctuated by short conversations with the EPA and DOJ, and as September turns to October, I file a request to look at the EPA’s consent-decree records and periodically return to the Linwood Avenue outfall. The scent of sewage becomes less intense over time, but it still has that unmistakable reek, especially right after it first starts to rain and whatever’s pooled up in the pipes during the dry weather gets flushed out.

Meanwhile, the city’s 311 system for logging citizen complaints and service requests steadily registers calls from along Linwood Avenue as it heads north from the waterfront into the city. The 311 system is alerted seven times about sewer odors along the Linwood corridor during September, and another nine times for the 12 months prior to that. Some of the calls are quite specific about the source, describing “a strong sewer smell coming from the storm drain in the street,” for instance, or “a very strong sewer odor coming from the inlet.” On Election Day, Sept. 11, the day before Schmidt talks to us in our kayaks, someone reports that it “smells like sewage inside and out” of a house on Linwood, two blocks north of the outfall.

Citywide, 31 other complaint calls came in to 311 operators in September about sewer odors. “There is a strong sewer odor in the area,” the city is notified by a caller from the Northwest Community Action neighborhood, on the west side near Walbrook Junction. Another caller points out that there is a “strong odor of sewage in the air” at East North Avenue and Broadway, near the Great Blacks in Wax Museum. A “bad sewer smell” is reported at Gay and Lombard streets, a block off the harbor downtown, and a “very powerful sewer smell” is noted in Waverly. “A very strong sewage smell is coming from the pond” in the woods behind Uplands, another caller notes, giving the location where Maiden Choice Run begins its rough-and-tumble journey through Southwest Baltimore before it reaches the Gwynns Falls just above Carroll Park. The list goes on.

Aside from the sewage stench rising from below the streets, the 311 system also logged a myriad of complaints that sewage was flowing in city streets, sidewalks, alleys, and into storm drains in September, which was an extremely dry month with less than half an inch of rain. As the weeks passed, the city responded to a total of 19 calls described as reporting “sewer overflows” and “sewer leaks,” and numerous other calls that described sewage flowing in the streets. When sewage runs on the streets, it enters storm drains and, ultimately, enters the Chesapeake Bay. How to estimate that flow–especially at a storm-drain outlet like the one at Linwood Avenue, which is designed to be partially submerged in the Patapsco River’s tides–is anybody’s guess.

The consent decree requires the city of Baltimore to estimate the amount of sewage released in leaks the city deems reportable, so if anyone’s trying to guess how much Baltimore City sewage is leaking, it’s the city’s Department of Public Works. It looks like DPW is lowballing it.

Whenever an “unauthorized discharge of wastewater” from the city’s sewage collection system into “any waters” of the United States, the consent decree dictates that a written report must be provided to EPA within five days. In the report, the city must describe the cause, duration, and volume of the flow, as well as “corrective actions or plans to eliminate future discharges” at the site and “whether or not the overflow has caused, or contributed to, an adverse impact on water quality in the receiving water body.”

Once DPW estimates the amount of sewage that leaked and reports it, the city is subject to fines based on the number of gallons of sewage that the city says leaked. Since January 2003, EPA records reflect the city has been levied fines totaling $416,200 (the payments are split evenly between EPA and MDE) for 255 reported leaks.

The sewer-leak reporting also forms part of the quarterly reports that the city must prepare and submit under the consent decree, to keep all the plaintiffs up to date on progress in improving the sewer system’s performance. The tally of reported leaks listed in the quarterly reports since December 2002 is 419, releasing a total estimate of nearly 190 million gallons. The smallest reported leak was 12 gallons lost to Western Run, which joins the Jones Falls near Mount Washington, on a rainy day in April 2004. The largest was the July 2004 bulkhead failure at Braddish Avenue behind St. Peter’s Cemetery in West Baltimore, which released a rush of sewage into the Gwynns Falls initially estimated to be 36.25 million gallons, though online MDE records put the guess at 1.5 million gallons.

The trend on paper has been fewer leaks reported as the consent decree progresses, with 143 reported for 2003 and 72 reported for 2006. By the end of June this year, summary details on 31 leaks were included in the quarterly reports, so 2007 appears headed for an even lower total.

As of Nov. 7, when I went to Philadelphia to review EPA’s consent-decree files, the city of Baltimore had not notified the agency of any reportable sewer leaks occurring in September 2007. There were some reported in August and some in October, but none in September. Thus, whatever spewed raw sewage out into the harbor at the end of Linwood Avenue in September, and whatever prompted citizens citywide to lodge complaints about sewer leaks, overflows, and odors over the course of that very dry month, it wasn’t sewer leaks reported by the city under the consent decree. It must have been something else.

Oddly, the 311-calling public appears to be more attuned to sewage leaking in Baltimore City when the leaks aren’t reported under the consent decree than when they are. A year before, in September 2006, when at 7.5 inches there was nearly twice the historic average rainfall for that month, the situation was reversed. The city reported five sewer discharges totaling 39,255 gallons, occurring in Waltherson, Grove Park, Cherry Hill, Violetville, and the state’s Juvenile Justice Center on Gay Street downtown. But on 311, not a single call about a sewer leak or overflow came in all month long.

“The consent decree requires the City to report releases from the collection system that reach receiving waters or storm sewers,” EPA spokesman David Sternberg writes to City Paper in a Dec. 7 e-mail. “It does not require the City to report releases that don’t meet these criteria (i.e., basement backups).”

Perhaps September’s citywide sewage funk that had residents reaching for their phones–and sewage contaminating the marina where Schmidt keeps his boat–was due to something as routine and hard to stop as a whole lot of basement backups occurring during what amounted to a drought. And perhaps the absence of 311 sewer-leak complaints in September 2006, when heavy rains prompted the city to report one big leak and grease clogs caused four smaller ones to be reported, is attributable to the fact that the leaks the city detected were in areas where residents didn’t see or smell them.

But one thing is clear, based on the September flow out of the Linwood Avenue outfall: Sewage from Baltimore City is getting into the storm drains and, thus, into the bay–a lot more sewage than the amounts being reported by the city under the consent decree.

“The harbor is being polluted with sewer overflows, especially at Linwood Avenue,” Phil Lee explains. As a founder of the Baltimore Harbor Watershed Association and an engineer, he’s being asked to comment about the Linwood outfall and its impact, and he says he’s spoken with environmental authorities about it over the years. At some point, he says, he was told that an “illicit connection into the storm-drain system upstream” was contributing to the problem. “I don’t think they’ve fixed it,” he observes, adding that “it’s still like Old Faithful.”

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Lee’s not the only one who’s been keeping track of the Linwood Avenue outfall. A man whom Lee calls “a one-man army” in the cause of tracking sewer problems, Guy Hollyday, has been telling authorities about it for years.

Hollyday’s group, the Baltimore Sanitary Sewer Oversight Coalition, targeted the Linwood Avenue outfall as an “acute” sewer problem–one of three it had identified citywide–during a meeting held for city officials at Loyola College in November 2005. The group, formed in 2000 when four Baltimore watershed groups combined and coordinated their ongoing efforts to keep sewage out of city streams, issued its annual report for 2006 in May this year, updating the situation.

The report pinpointed an illegal sewer connection to the storm-drain system at the site of Pompeian Inc., an olive oil bottling company located on Pulaski Highway in East Baltimore, about two miles away from the outfall as the crow flies. It’s not clear whether the illegal connection has anything to do with Pompeian or if it just happens to meet the storm drains under the company’s property; attempts to contact Pompeian for comment were unsuccessful. Based on information from the city, however, the group’s summary explained that 300 feet of sewer pipe upstream had been lined to try to keep the sewage from entering the storm-drain system there, but as of September 2005, with sewage still entering the storm drain, the city had resolved to replace the next section of sewer downstream, too.

“It’s still not fixed, as far as I know,” Hollyday says over lunch at nearby Kiss Café in late November.

He’s right. In a Dec. 10 e-mail, DPW spokesman Kurt Kocher identifies the illegal connection at the olive oil company’s property, and explains that “the city is awaiting this company’s final plan for plant expansion,” which “will include a new proposal for the relocation of the sewer line” that’s been causing problems. “The city has continued to keep [MDE] informed on the status of this project,” Kocher adds, though apparently EPA has not been in the loop. Nothing about it appeared in the voluminous EPA files reviewed by City Paper, and the EPA’s Angela McFadden had not heard of the sewage appearing at the Linwood Avenue outfall, much less where it might be coming from.

In all likelihood, sewage will from time to time continue to contaminate the harbor at the Linwood Avenue storm-water outfall. Citizens, whose rising water and sewer rates are paying for the billion-dollar sewer-system overhaul, will endure the fouled water and reeking air until the sewer is fixed at Pompeian Inc. If the sewage still flows then, the city likely will seek out and fix other sources of sewage in the storm drains as more years pass. Perhaps it will turn out to be an never-ending battle, and there always will be sewage flowing into the harbor beneath Linwood Avenue, for as long as people flush toilets and have basement backups in Baltimore.

But none of that changes the course of progress. DPW is deeply proud of its work so far under the consent decree, and is bound to stay that way. “As of this date,” Kocher wrote in his Dec. 10 e-mail, “all but 5 of [39] construction projects [required under the consent decree] have been completed and 54 engineered [sewage] overflow structures have been eliminated.” Up next are sewershed studies and sewer flow monitoring across the city, he continued, which aim to root out the sources of unpermitted sewage discharges. “The current estimate of the program at $900 million,” Kocher concluded, “continues to be a reasonable estimate at this time,” adding that once the upcoming studies are completed “the City will be able to better refine that estimate.”

Because of the progress that has already been made, and because of more progress that’s required before the consent decree expires, Lee believes in swimmable, fishable harbor water by 2020–that’s what the law has set out to do. His optimism is commendable and was likely shared widely in 1972, when the original Clean Water Act first passed, calling for swimmable, fishable waters by 1983. But 2020’s a long time away, and hundreds of millions of dollars still has to be spent in a little less than a decade on sewer improvements. Lee seems truly to believe it’s doable, and he sees the sewage flowing beneath Linwood Avenue, while a longstanding condition, as a temporary one requiring patience before the city finally puts an end to it.

When it comes to water-quality issues, Darin Crew has to be nearly as adept at understanding sewersheds as he is at understanding watersheds. He came to Baltimore to take a job at the Herring Run Watershed Association, aiming to improve water quality in the Northeast Baltimore watershed, which is a tributary to Back River in Baltimore County. That was 2003, and in February of that year, the Herring Run hosted what was immediately billed as one of the worst sewage spills in city history. An estimated 36 million gallons of sewage was released after two massive sewer lines embedded in the stream became blocked.

Four months later, in June 2003, an estimated 35 million gallons of sewage leaked out of a damaged manhole along Herring Run, poking a hole in the largest-in-city-history theory about the first one. The following May and July brought two more 30 million gallon-plus gushers at Braddish Avenue, affecting the Gwynns Falls. For Crew, knowing about the weak links in the sewer system in Herring Run’s drainage area was to be a major part of his new job.

“It’s right down here, directly beneath this bridge,” Crew says as he pulls up in his pickup truck. The Mannasota Avenue bridge spans Herring Run, connecting the Belair-Edison and Parkside neighborhoods, and Crew promises to show me and a City Paperphotographer that sewage is running out of the storm drain constructed in the bridge foundation. We follow Crew as he scrambles down the stream bank and goes under the bridge. Concrete was used to channel Herring Run as it passes beneath the bridge, and the clear water coming out of the storm drain splashes on it and runs, pooling here and there, into the clear running stream. There’s no odor of sewage.

“It doesn’t always smell,” Crew explains. “You can tell that sewage is a likely component of what’s coming out of here by the gray scum that collects on the surfaces wherever the water is for any period of time. It’s just gray scum. Other than that, you can measure ammonia in the water. That’s a pretty good indicator. And the ammonia levels are always pretty high here. This flows about a gallon a minute, and that works out to be 60 gallons an hour–you do the math. It’s a constant flow, except when it rains. And this low-level kind of thing, by itself, doesn’t really do much damage, water quality-wise, given all that’s already getting into the stream. But it’s still a problem.”

“What about that one over there?” the photographer asks, pointing across Herring Run to another outfall coming out of the opposite stream bank. “I don’t know, let’s go see,” Crew suggests. Again, the water is clear. But this time the sewage odor hits while approaching the opening. “Whoa, that’s definitely sewage,” Crew says of the smell. But there’s no telltale gray scum. Turns out, there’s another outfall beneath the one the photographer spotted, and down there–it takes some effort and contortions to see it–there’s plenty of gray scum forming as the clear storm-drain water courses out of the pipe and into Herring Run.

“Taken all together,” Crew concludes, “these types of small, steady sewage leaks do become a serious water-quality problem. It’s not as serious as the 30 million gallons that came down here a few years ago, but it’s a problem, and I think it’s about time we kicked up the enforcement effort on this kind of thing.” He shows us one more example, under a bridge on Hillen Road next to the Mount Pleasant Golf Course, and gets back to work.

On Nov. 30, the photographer and I go to the 4500 block of Fairfax Road in West Baltimore’s Windsor Hills, looking for a plumber. A&A Plumbing is listed at an address on this block, and, since no one from the business had returned a phone message, we came to knock on the door. Once there, we found three men in baseball caps standing beside three pickup trucks, backed up toward the entrance. They know nothing of the plumber listed at that address.

“What, are you bondsmen?” one asks, and everyone laughs.

I explain that we’re almost as unwelcome, under most circumstances: the press. But when it becomes clear that the story has to do with the city’s efforts to fix its chronically leaky sewer system, and that this area has a particularly rough history of sewer problems, and that a plumber’s anecdotes of Windsor Hills sewage nightmares was sought, the three men grow friendly and relaxed. One, a 40-year-old truck driver from Randallstown who introduces himself as Rick Edwards, steps up and starts talking.

“I keep my boat down at the harbor,” Edwards explains, “at Canton Cove Marina at the end of Linwood Avenue. Been keeping it there like four or five years, and there’s sewage coming out of the storm drain there, stinking things up so bad I hardly even use my boat anymore. Can’t even go sit on your boat down there, can’t entertain or have friends down, because it smells so bad.” The infamous outfall’s reputation apparently remains intact all the way across town in Windsor Hills.

We take leave of the men to check out the sewer-main stacks protruding up from the streambed next to the Windsor Hills Conservation Trail, at the end of the block. We return a half-hour later to announce there’s no sewer odor, but the water coming out of the storm drain shows evidence of the likely presence of sewage: gray scum on the rocks and concrete where the water runs.

“The boats down at the marina,” Edwards says, “you have to clean gray scum off of the bottom of them, just like the stuff you see on them rocks. It’s the same stuff. I’ve had it scrubbed and cleaned off, and it looks like it grows off the bottom of the boat, literally. It’s just this muck.

“There’s sewage coming out all over. But what’re you gonna do? I talked to a city worker about it, he said the pipes are so old, it’s just always going to leak, and they’ll just keep on trying to catch up with them all. The leaks up here, on this street, they don’t go to Linwood Avenue, but it all ends up in the same place eventually.”

Edwards is standing seven miles away, in a straight line, from the Linwood Avenue outfall. Sewage that leaks here travels downhill to the end of Fairfax Road, where it drains downstream into the Gwynns Falls and, having joined up with more sewage-laden water as it goes, reaches the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River right near the BRESCO waste incinerator. From there, it joins the Patapsco’s North Branch–better known as the Baltimore harbor–at Fort McHenry. Right across the harbor from Fort McHenry is the Canton Cove Marina, where Edwards wishes he no longer kept his boat, and where David Schmidt complained in full three-part harmony that September day to two kayakers about the powerful dose of sewage coming out of the Linwood Avenue outfall. Everything, as they say, is connected.

“It’s gotten to the point where I don’t even want to be on the bay at all,” Edwards says of what the sewage, and pollution in general, is doing to his boating habits. “At this point, I think I’d rather be in Ocean City, any day.”

We say goodbye and drive up the hill from Fairfax Road onto Talbot Street, pulling over to speak with a gentleman raking leaves on the curb. “Sure, I know about the sewer problems over the years,” he says. “They did a lot of work trying to fix them in the ’70s and ’80s, and they did more in the ’90s. Used to hear the heavy machinery down in the Gwynns Falls, and now they’re doing more under the streets here. As for the details, I’m probably not the best person to ask. That house right there”–and he points to one across the way–“David Carroll lives there. He’s some kind of environmental expert. You should ask him.”

“David Carroll,” he announces, when he picks up the phone at his Towson office in early December. Carroll is the director of the Baltimore County Department of Environmental and Resource Management, an agency that manages a sewage system under a consent decree much like Baltimore City’s, which went into effect in 2005 and involves the same plaintiffs. He’s held similar high-level public positions as an environmental manager in Baltimore City and in state and federal government over the years, including a stint as MDE secretary under Gov. William Donald Schaefer in the 1980s and ’90s. This impressive résumé qualifies Carroll, in the words of his neighbor in Windsor Hills, as “some kind of environmental expert.”

But Carroll is also a longtime resident of Windsor Hills, where sewer leaks have historically plagued the city’s underground pipes, and that gives him some personal perspective on the impact of sewage on city neighborhoods, and the challenges of making improvements to sewer systems.

“Frankly, we haven’t tracked it all that closely,” Carroll says of the Windsor Hills community’s sewage-leak monitoring efforts. “We got together and started the Windsor Hills Conservation Trail, there at the end of Fairfax Road, and people out on the trail have been reporting leaks there for the last 10, 15 years. There have been lots of leaks reported over the years, but it’s been pretty sporadic, given the fact that we’re not really monitoring it in an organized fashion.

“The community association in the neighborhood has been working with the Windsor Hills Elementary School,” he continues, “to use those sanitary stacks sticking up in the stream along the conservation trail as education tools. And that’s important, because the neighborhood kids actually do swim in the Gwynns Falls. And, in fact, the effort’s working. There was an environmental festival for the schoolchildren down along the stream, and some kids jumped into a pool of water in the Gwynns Falls, and another kid said, `Get out of there! There are fecals all in there!’ He was talking about fecal coliform, and that kid understands it’s in the water and it’s dangerous, and he’s telling other kids that. That’s good.”

Carroll has heard of the ongoing stench and foul water coming out of the Linwood Avenue outfall–“that one’s pretty infamous,” he says–but he’s not convinced, even with all the expensive sewer reconstruction and extensive efforts to curtail the sewage entering the harbor, that the harbor will ever improve to the swimmable, fishable standard set forth in the Clean Water Act.

“When we get all the pipes working as they should, we’ll still have all this organic matter in the system–crap from geese and dogs and cats, dead animals, the grease and oil and food scraps and trash that gets washed off the streets, all the rest of it. And we’ll still have a problem. And then what are we going to do? But the first thing you got to do is get the human stuff out of there. And as this gets done, there will be major improvements in the amounts of raw sewage going into our streams.

“As for the city,” Carroll continues, “it’s just this network of really old sewers, and there’s a lot to do. Blockages occur in the main sewer lines, and the resulting backups usually cause leaks–that, or a standing [sanitary] stack gets severed, or a pumping station fails. Grease collecting in the lines and clogging them–that’s a big problem. The way we do it, every time that happens, if there’s anything at all that leaks–anything, it doesn’t matter if it’s a gallon or not–we have to report it to MDE and EPA, even if it doesn’t reach the waters of the state. It’s anything that leaks. Zero tolerance, that’s the threshold.

“But it’s not the amount of sewage spilled that matters,” Carroll emphasizes. “It’s the impact it has on water quality on an ongoing basis. And the big overarching context here is this–you want us to get swimmable and fishable waters, but how do you do that? Where has it worked? I’ve got sunfish in the Gwynns Falls, but is it really ever going to be safe to swim in it? Because there’s still going to be a lot of things that make the water yucky that are still going to be there, after all this work on the sewers is said and done. And that’s what the public, who’s paying for all of this, doesn’t seem to understand. It’s not the message they’re getting. They’re hearing that all this billion dollars of sewer improvements is going to make the harbor clean, but that’s simply not the case.”

City Paper awaits the outcome of the investigation EPA says it’s conducting into the sewage that comes out of the Linwood Avenue storm-drain outfall. Also pending are full responses from EPA, MDE, DPW, and DOJ to two November letters from City Paperabout a variety of consent-decree compliance issues that jumped off the pages of the EPA’s records. As a result of numerous 311 complaints describing what sound very much like sewage leaks that are discharging into city streets, gutters, and storm drains, and yet aren’t reported under the consent decree, a major question was whether the city has been routinely failing to report leaks as required. DPW provided a partial response in a Dec. 7 e-mail.

“The majority of the [311] complaints listed in your letter pertain to sewage in basements,” the statement reads in part. “These types of complaints are not applicable to reporting under the consent decree. At some locations listed, the 311 complaint code was characterized as a sanitary sewer overflow, however, there was no associated report sent to the regulators. This is due to a variety of reasons,” but in most cases “it appears that [DPW] corrected certain problems but did not observe a reportable discharge.”

In essence, the statement says DPW reports all sewer leaks, as required, without exception. Yet the Baltimore Sanitary Sewer Oversight Coalition’s Guy Hollyday says he’s been pointing out ongoing sewer leaks to DPW for years, and DPW’s been confirming that they exist and continue leaking, and yet many remain to be fixed. The group’s 2004 annual report, for instance, states that during that year DPW confirmed the existence of 17 ongoing sewer leaks around the city, yet they weren’t repaired. Some, Hollyday says in late November, still haven’t been.

The last time I checked, on the evening of Dec. 10, turbid, brown, debris-laden water was coming out of the Linwood Avenue storm-drain outfall, but it didn’t stink of sewage. The next day, Rick Edwards, the Randallstown truck driver, calls. That gray scum is building up on the hull of his boat, he explains, and he repeats that he’s about had it with all this sewage in the harbor.

“It smells like sewage half the time,” he says. “Everyone is talking about it–it’s a common issue.”

By all appearances, the stench in the harbor is not going to go away anytime soon, so everyone can still go on talking about it until it does–be that 2020, or beyond.

Stronger Than Strong: In a Showdown Over Landfill Problems, Public Works Director Prevails Over Mayor’s Friend

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By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Dec. 6, 1995

The November dismissal of Ken Strong as the city’s top garbageman is a tale of alleged government mismanagement, mixed political loyalties, and the frailty of personal friendship in the upper reaches of power. This personnel move, carried out by Department of Public Works (DPW) director George Balog with the approval of Strong’s childhood friend, Mayor Kurt Schmoke, provides a telling glimpse into the netherworld of city politics.

Balog’s official explanation for removing Strong as head of the Bureau of Solid Waste (BSW) was that he needed someone with a more technical background and greater field-operations experience. Strong, who has been widely praised for his innovation and efficiency during his one and a half years as BSW head, believes instead that his demise has more to do with his recent questioning of DPW’s handling of problems at the Quarantine Road Sanitary Landfill. Strong also asserts that “Balog wanted to get rid of me long before” the landfill dispute, perhaps because the DPW director wanted “to protect himself from my finding out how he operates.”

Surrounding these conflicting interpretations of the event is a larger conflict about what happens in mayoral politics when personal loyalty is pitted against professional power. Strong and Schmoke have been friend since both joined the Lancers boys’ club as teenagers.

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Strong has coordinated volunteers for all of Schmoke’s campaigns and served in the state’s attorney’s office and on the Planning Commission before moving to BSW. Most recently, he mobilized BSW forces to clean the city during an election year, an accomplishment recognized by mayoral spokesperson Clinton Coleman in the days following Strong’s dismissal. “I would say that having a cleaner city certainly helps [the mayor with re-election]. And we are in fact a cleaner city,” Coleman said.

George Balog is the director of the city’s largest department, overseeing some 6,000 city workers and hundreds of millions of dollars in city contracts. As a member of the Board of Estimates, he has one of five votes in approving the way the city spends most of its money. His power and influence in city matters – and his ability to attract contributions to fund re-election campaigns – are vital cogs in Schmoke’s political machine. Thus, when Balog decided it was time to move Strong out of BSW, the mayor quickly conceded, despite the merits of Strong’s record and his concerns about the landfill. Strong, for his part, is considering a lawsuit charging that his firing violated the state’s whistleblower statute.

On November 16, prompted by a reporter’s questions about a possible link between Strong’s dismissal and alleged problems at the landfill, Balog convened a press briefing in his conference room. During the two and a half hours that followed, Balog made his case. On hand to aid in the effort were DPW staff attorney Deborah Skupien, several other department officials, DPW spokesperson Vanessa Pyatt, and a consultant expert in landfill design.

At issue is the landfill leachate pond, where contaminated water that has percolated through the 25-acre clay-lined landfill is collected before being pumped into tankers and shipped to Patapsco River Wastewater Treatment Plant.

The pond, which is lined with clay and asphalt, has been out of commission since July 1994, when a 13-ton front-end loader was used to help remove sediment that had built up on the pond bed since its construction in 1984. According to DPW memos, the weight of the loader cracked the pond and created a need for extensive repairs. In August 1995, repairs were finally completed by a contractor, L.F. Mahoney. Strong, BSW engineers, and state officials have since expressed concerns about the repairs and DPW’s oversight of the contractor’s work.

The crux of Balog’s argument, though, is that Strong, far from having legitimate concerns about repairs to the landfill leachate pond, is himself to blame for the problems there. In Balog’s eyes, Strong, by virtue of being BSW head at the time, is not only responsible for the 1994 cracking of the pond bed but also for failing to bring the pond back into service immediately after the August 1995 repairs. Balog says that failure will cost the city $41,000. Mahoney’s bid for repairing the pond was $23,030.

In Strong’s opinion, Mahoney “treated our leachate pond like a pothole”; he believes payment to the contractor should be withheld until the repairs are done properly. In addition, Strong and others are concerned about unrepaired damage to the flume, through which leachate empties into the pond. The flume has been plugged for more than a year as the pond has awaited repairs, but warm, odorous liquid has been leaking from cracks and holes surrounding it.

As for Balog’s steadfast contention that the contractor’s work was good, Strong says, “I don’t believe he’s interested in the truth of what’s happening [at the leachate pond]. I believe he’s interested in protecting himself and his staff and his contractors” from being held responsible for the pond’s problems.

“It doesn’t seem to me that he is working assertively to solve the problem,” Strong continues. “He is working very aggressively to assign blame.”

In late October, Strong brought his concerns about the pond to Edward Dexter, chief of field operations for the Maryland Department of the Environment’s sold-waste program. On November 7, Dexter submitted a formal letter to DPW requesting detailed information to document that the repairs were adequate. As of December 5, he was still awaiting a response.

Early in the morning on Sunday, November 18, after word of the problems at the leachate pond had started to spread throughout city government, City Council members Martin O’Malley (D-3rd District) and John Cain (D-1st District) led a fact-finding mission to the landfill. Joining the legislators were two environmental activists, Terry Harris of the Sierra Club and Dan Jerrems of the Baltimore Recycling Coaltion and the Baltimore Parks Coalition. The legislators inspected the pond, concentrating on the damage around the flume, and declared their intent to scrutinize the matter, further, possibly through a formal council investigation.

Schmoke’s position on the issue of the leachate pond has evolved somewhat. On November 19, he said, “I accept Mr. Balog’s explanation, pointing out that “I’ve seen memoranda back and forth about it and I think Mr. Balog has adequately described the problem and is dealing with it.” Ten days later, he reserved judgment: “Without having firsthand experience or being an expert on environmental matters, for me to reach a conclusion based on the memoranda themselves is certainly difficult, so I have asked the law department to look into the matter and provide me with their analysis of it.” Leslie Winner, a contracts specialist in the city solicitor’s office, has been assigned the case.

Balog maintains that he did not remove Strong as BSW head as a result of his adamant stance and crusade of memos about the pond repairs. Rather, Balog credits Schmoke with the inspiration for moving Strong out of the position.

“I met with the mayor and the mayor, in this term, he wants to emphasize doing things,” Balog says. “He said, ‘We’ve been doing planning and all, and I want all the emphasis to be put on doing things.’ So I have Ken Strong at solid waste. His background is in English and he’s like an environmentalist. He’s been involved in communities and stuff like that. … And I look around my department, I got a guy named Leonard Addison. He’s been with the department 25 years. A civil engineer, terrific field man … so that’s when I said to the mayor, ‘Look, I got somebody that I think’s really good and I think we should give him a chance of being a focal point with the hottest bureau and see what he can do.’ And that’s how it happened.”

Schmoke says he doesn’t recall such a conversation with Balog, but says he approves of Strong’s dismissal. On November 20, Strong met with Schmoke to discuss the situation, which both say has been a strain on their 31-year friendship.

“It has been a difficult experience,” Schmoke says. “It’s somewhat awkward anyway to be in an employer-employee relationship with somebody that you’ve been friends with for quite a long time.” The mayor adds that the episode hasn’t “irreparably damaged” his friendship with Strong “becauswe we’ve had some very frank conversations about this situation, and he understands that I have supported a lot of the work that he has done.”

Schmoke, who points out that Strong declined an offer of a civil-service position at DPW, has agreed to be a reference for Strong as he looks for new employment. “I identify [Strong] as a person with a real concern for community,” Schmoke remarks. “He’s a person that things that what happens in neighborhoods in this city is very important, that we ought to pay attention to people’s concerns neighborhood by neighborhood. He looks at both the big picture and the small blocks and has a great deal of concern about both.”

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Schmoke’s high regard for Strong, along with Strong’s publicly recognized record of service for the mayor, has led many observers to wonder why the mayor would so easily defer to Balog in moving Strong out of city government. O’Malley, for one, sees the situation as “one big power struggle.” Cain sees it as “city politics in microcosm, a metaphor of the way things really are.” Both believe Strong’s dismissal got the nod from the mayor because Balog has a significant edge over Strong in terms of raw power in city government.

Although Strong mobilizes get-out-the-vote forces for Schmoke – a valuable contribution to the reelection process – his role was not powerful enough to help him prevail in a showdown with Balog, a critical rainmaker during the campaign season. O’Malley suggests further that Strong, whose support among community leaders is well known, presented a direct threat to Balog’s authority. “Maybe Ken was the heir apparent, moving up to be DPW director,” the council member contends.

There are no indication that Strong was in line to replace Balog as DPW director. Balog says he has never felt threatened by Strong’s special relationship with the mayor and long history of community involvement.

Records of campaign contributions show that DPW contractors and empoyees gave large amounts to the Schmoke reelection drive. Thirteen DPW contractors who were mentioned by Balog in interviews about the leachate pond or who made bids to repair the pond collectively have given $42,965 to the Schmoke campaign committee since July 1994. (According to the integrated financial report of the city, these 13 contractors got more than $16 million worth of business from the city in the first 11 months of the 1995 fiscal year.) A group of 24 DPW employees and five of their family members, identified in the campaign records by matching their names with the city telephone directory, has given $9,150 since August 1994. These amounts are just a small part of the total DPW-related fund-raising picture, which includes a large community of contractors and a potential giving pool of about 6,000 employees.

“I seriously doubt that these contractors contribute to incumbent mayors because of their political philosophy,” O’Malley contends. “They contribute because they receive contracts, and no person in city government has greater knowledge of that process than Mr. Balog.”

Asked about his role as a major impetus for political giving, Balog says, “I never asked anybody to give any money, if that is what you are asking. I’ll take a lie-detector test on that.”

Strong was extremely surprised by the large amount Schmoke raised from the 13 contractors related to the leachate pond. But he makes no specific allegations of Balog pressuring contractors and employees to give to the Schmoke campaign, noting, “It’s more by rumor and reputation that [Balog] brings money into the campaign.”

While Strong says he is dismayed by the role money plays in politics generally – “The outcomes of it are pretty well documented,” he says – he contends that the overarching theme of Balog’s leadership is not his role as a political fund-raiser, but “the ways in which he is working to maintain his own power rather than serving the interests of the city.” By way of illustration, Strong says he was “infuriated” when, during the inauguration of the Clean Sweep program (which targets specific areas of the city for regularly scheduled, intensive cleanups), Balog made a casual reference to a “Dirty Dozen” of the city most in need of the program. The Dirty Dozen idea was not a preplanned part of the press conference, so Strong says “we had to create that on the spot.” Strong, who had been heavily involved in planning Clean Sweep, concluded that Balog “was jealous of this program, so in the last minute he comes up with this oddball aspect, the Dirty Dozen, which was what the paper ended up writing about.”

Confirming reports from DPW staff who did not want to be quoted for this story, Strong says Balot’s ongoing reorganization of the department has many managers on edge, worried about their job security as successive waves of changes come down the chain of command. Balog states he’s been reorganizing the department for “several years,” while Schmoke says he’s satisfied that, in so doing, Balog’s building a better DPW.

But one manager says, “I don’t know why there’s all these changes being made. My hope is that it is to improve the department, but I’m not so sure that’s the case – not so sure at all.” Strong, who on December 3 attended a surprise birthday party held for him by many of his former DPW underlings, says he came away from the gathering feeling that “people seem to be under growing pressure back at the department,” in part because “every time you turn around there’s another reorganization.”

Strong recalls a moment early in his DPW career that to him defines the culture that Balog is breeding at the department. Balog denies the conversation ever took place, but Strong insists that it occurred during one of his first meetings with the director, in 1991. Strong had just made the jump from the state’s attorney’s office to DPW. “[Balog] said, ‘One of the problems with people like you who come over from the state’s attorney’s office is that you think in terms of right and wrong. We don’t do that here. We just get things done.’ To me,” Strong concludes, “that just explains a lot about how he operates the department.”

Strong is consulting with an attorney to assess his chances of proving in court that he was dismissed in retribution for his stance on the pond-repair problems; in the meantime, he vows to press on in publicizing his concerns about the landfill. At the December 6 Board of Estimates meeting, for example, he plans to protest the proposed approval of the $41,000 expenditure to complete the pond repairs. And he says he will cooperate fully with the proposed City Council review of the situation.

“I think this story provides some important lessons to be learned about how government operates and how it should operate,” Strong says. “I will support whatever will open it up to some deeper analysis.”