Rain from Hurricane Irene flooded sewage systems across Maryland, overwhelming sewage treatment plants and releasing millions of gallons of waste into Chesapeake Bay tributaries, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment.
Baltimore County reported 12 incidents of sewage pumping stations overflowing this weekend, with each incident releasing between 2,000 gallons and more than 13 million gallons of sewage mixed with rainwater, according to the state agency. The storm also flooded wastewater treatment plants in the Towns of Millington and Greensboro on the Eastern Shore, and it shut down ultraviolet disinfection facilities at the Mattawoman Wastewater Treatment Plant in Southern Maryland, according to the state agency.
UPDATE: The Anne Arundel County Department of Health today (on Sept. 30) closed a section of the Patapsco River in the Brookyln neighborhood because of an overflow of more than 50 million gallons from the Patapsco Pumping Station, caused by a rupture in a 54-inch sewage line on Sunday. In Washington D.C., 200 million gallons of sewage mixed with rainwater overflowed into the Potomac River and its tributaries.
Sewage overflows during rainstorms are not unique to Maryland or Washington, D.C. Overflows are frequent across the country, in part because rain overwhelms old, leaky sewage systems, and some antiquated systems combine human waste and rain water in the same pipes.
But Maryland deserves credit for attacking the problem aggressively. In an effort that stretches back more than a decade, state regulators and EPA have used administrative orders and lawsuits to help compel older cities and towns to modernize their sewer systems.
Massive construction projects are under way -– but only partially complete -- in Baltimore and Western Maryland’s Allegany County, among other locations. Communities across the state plan to invest $2 billion to $3 billion over the next 14 years, with the goal of eliminating sewage overflows in Maryland by 2025, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment.
“Overflows are, unfortunately, quite common throughout Maryland, throughout the region, and throughout even the U.S,” said Jay Sakai, director of the Water Management Administration at the Maryland Department of the Environment. “The state certainly recognizes that this is a problem that we all have to work together to help fix.”
Sewage overflows are a problem because they can pose a potential risk to human health to people who swim in or accidentally swallow contaminated waters, or to people who eat shellfish tainted with human waste.
In advance of Hurricane Irene on Saturday, the Maryland Department of the Environment banned all harvesting of oysters and other shellfish in state waters for a week because of the likelihood that heavy rains would flush sewage and contaminated storm water into the Chesapeake Bay. The ban extends until September 3.
How widespread is the problem?
Well, let's look at Baltimore, as one example. There were seven small sewage overflows during this weekend’s storm, according to the city Department of Public Works. Before that, from January to mid- August, almost 6 million gallons of sewage mixed with water had overflowed from pipes in Baltimore into streams and the harbor, according to a sewage overflow database maintained by the Maryland Department of the Environment.
However, Baltimore is not even close to having the worst sewage overflow problem in Maryland. That distinction falls to the small Western Maryland town of La Vale, according to the state database.
La Vale is an unincorporated community of about 4,000 people located about three hours west of Baltimore in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. By mid-August, La Vale had reported 20 sewage overflows so far this year that released a total of 171 million gallons of sewage mixed with rainwater into Braddock Run, which eventually flows into the Potomac River, a Chesapeake Bay tributary, according to the state database.
That meant that tiny La Vale had almost 29 times the volume of sewage overflows reported by the much larger Baltimore city. In fact, through mid-August of this year, 10 of the 10 largest sewage overflows reported in Maryland were in La Vale or surrounding Allegany County, according to the state database.
Because of the sewage overflows in La Vale, levels of e-coli bacteria in Braddock Run average about 13 times higher than state water quality standards, according to federal and state pollution limits for the stream.
On a recent afternoon, Staton Klein, a graduate student in stream ecology at nearby Frostburg State University, inspected the rocky stream. Braddock Run is about 20 feet across, shaded by trees, and flows behind a Red Lobster and strip malls on Route 40 in La Vale. He squatted beside a two foot wide black plastic pipe that points into the waterway.
“Right here is the outfall,” Klein said, ignoring a pungent odor. “As you can see, remaining from the last overflow event we have toilet paper and God knows what else on the ground, in the shrubs, I’ve seen it hanging from trees. It’s pretty nasty.”
La Vale is one of seven older communities in Maryland –- mostly in Western Maryland’s Allegany County, but also in Cambridge and Federalsburg on the Eastern Shore -- that still have combined sewage and stormwater systems, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment. In these old-fashioned systems, rainwater from storm drains on the street is funneled into the same pipes with human waste, and both are released together during storms.
It would be illegal today to build such a system like La Vale’s that deliberately releases raw sewage. But Maryland does not fine LaVale, because the town and surrounding Allegany County are spending millions of dollars to separate their sewage and stormwater systems under a court consent decree approved by the state in 2001, according to Sakai of the Maryland Department of the Environment.
“Years ago, there was a sense that you could build these combined systems, and you knew there was some element of the sewage that would get into the stream at the time when it rained, and that was perfectly acceptable,” Sakai said. “Well, the regulations have changed and the Clean Water Act (passed by Congress in 1972) has come into play.”
The La Vale Sanitary Commission did not return phone calls asking about the sewage overflows.
In some ways, it is difficult to compare the sewage overflow problems in La Vale and Baltimore, because their sewage systems have different problems. For example, Baltimore already has separate sewage and stormwater pipes.
But in places like the Herring Run stream in northeast Baltimore, terracotta sewage pipes were built roughly a century ago, often right in stream beds. The pipes then cracked and leaked, especially during rain storms, according to the Baltimore Public Works Department.
“DANGER: POLLUTED WATER. KEEP OUT" reads a sign on a bridge over the Herring Run.
Spurrred by a 1997 lawsuit filed against the city by EPA and Maryland regulators, Baltimore is now spending about $1.5 billion dollars replacing or fixing about 250 miles of its decaying pipes, including the lines beside Herring Run, according to Kurt Kocher, spokesman for the Baltimore Public Works Department. The city is lining many of its leaky pipes with polyurethane to prevent intrusion of rain water, officials said.
Sewer line work has already been completed along the Stony Run stream in North Baltimore. City residents will notice even more major construction projects starting early next year in several other areas of the city, including south of Druid Hill Park.
“We really need to start addressing our infrastructure, so we have the immediate benefit of putting people to work, doing something that absolutely has to be done,” Kocher said. “We have all of the spinoff economic benefits that come from this. You have cleaner streams, cleaner neighborhoods, so that’s better property values and improvement to tourism when you have a clean harbor, and a clean Bay.”
Water and sewer bills are going up because of the infrastructure improvements. But from cleaner streams may flow a healthier economy and a cleaner conscience when we hear the sound of rain.
By Tom Pelton
Chesapeake Bay Foundation
(Photos by Tom Pelton)