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Thank you for this article. I will be using this to model writing article summaries for my students in Environmental science classes, when school finally starts for us in Baltimore County.

Thanks, Kathy! I believe Baltimore County is also under a consent decree to improve its old and leaky sewer lines.

Obviously, the work in Baltimore County not done -- because there were 12 incidents of sewage pumping stations in the county being overwhelmed during the recent rain storm, releasing millions of gallons of human waste mixed with water.

It might be interesting to have someone from the county public works department come in and talk to your class about exactly what they are doing to solve the problem.

Nice article. Was looking for some reporting on this issue in the commercial media with nothing to be found.

Thanks, Eyes.

Actually, The Washington Post published a good article on the subject, thanks to their ace environmental writer Darryl Fears.

It appears as this Bay Daily article helped to inspire (or at least contributed information to) a news story on sewage overflows in the national section of The Washington Post. The Post article quotes from the Bay Daily article and provides a link to this blog. (Thanks very much, Darryl!)

You can read the Post article here:

Do you know of any public notices given by the regional or local health departments in regards to the SSOs caused by Hurricane Irene?

Yes, the Anne Arundel County Health Department posted this notice:

And the Baltimore County Health Department posted this notice:

I'm sure there were others, too.

It's not just older systems that cause problems. Check out the YouTube videos listed below to see raw sewage spilling into Mattawoman Creek in Charles County, Maryland. The area affected is frequented by anglers and kayakers.

Mattawoman has been called the best fish nursery in the Bay, but growth policies (think sprawl) have recently turned the fish ecology upside down--Mattawoman critically needs a new direction.

The plant to which the sewer line connects is only about 20 years old. Its construction permitted land speculators to begin developing the watershed, with Charles County growth and zoning polices serving as a cheerleader. The fundamental problem is one of values--trashing our streams is shrugged off as "balance," that is, as the cost of doing business.

Fortunately, a remarkable change in the political climate of Charles County may in fact change the direction for Mattawoman and other waterways in the county. The county is revising its Comprehensive Plan. Of the three future "scenarios" being considered, Scenario #1 actually implements true Smart Growth, with protection of stream valleys throughout the county, and attention to investment in existing urban centers. There are also competing scenarios that do a poor job, including one perpetuating business as usual. Getting behind Scenario #1 could create an unprecedented example of choosing Smart Growth for propserity, and for the Bay.

You can see a description of the scenarios at:

The following YouTube videos of sewage flowing into Mattawoman Creek are best viewed in the order given:

Thanks, Jim! I'll check those out.

Has anyone actually quantified the ponds of nitrogen and phosphorus released during these overflow events. From what I hear it’s difficult to assess because the overflows can occur at different stages of the treatment process, with the sewage often being diluted. The stringent TMDL process should require this information be documented. The post article mentions that the pollution from these overflows can have effects on water quality for up to three days. This is misleading, I believe, as it relates to fecal coliform. The effects on water quality from nitrogen can last months or years, while phosphorus effects can last decades.

Thanks, Elevation.

Do any readers out there have any numbers or sources that could answer this question?

My general understanding is that the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus from sewage overflows -- while significant -- is a relatively small percentage of the total amount of these pollutants causing "dead zones" in the Chesapeake Bay. Much larger sources of these nutrients include stormwater runoff pollution from agricultural and urban sources, and the actual permitted discharges of nitrogen and phosphorus from sewage treatment plants.

Sewage overflows do present a human health risk, however, because the bacteria can make people sick if they swim in contaminated waters or accidentally get it on their lips and swallow it (as children sometimes do when they play in streams)

The nutrient impacts of sanitary sewer overflows are underestimated because the clock does not begin calculating volume of pollution delivered until the appropriate local government authority gets to the site. It doesn't matter how long the overflow has been occurring before that point – the preceding volume is not taken into consideration. What’s more, the cumulative impact of small leaky sewer pipes on a watershed-scale is significant during dry weather. For example, one small continuous sewer leak that was found in Maryland was estimated to deliver over 600 pounds of nitrogen in half a year (see reports by the Center for Watershed Protection). Dozens of these small leaks can be found in urbanized Bay watersheds, going unnoticed until a systematic process for finding and fixing them is effectively in place. Addressing aging infrastructure needs to move to the forefront of our conversations on Bay restoration; the cost effectiveness of repairing at the source rather than at the “end of the pipe” through stormwater retrofits is a no-brainer.

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