Spilled Sewage Contaminates Baltimore Area Waterways

In an unsavory incident this month, sewage was accidentally allowed to flow freely into the Patapsco River’s Middle Branch. The incident began when a worker for Baltimore Gas and Electric somehow managed to damage a sewer line in Westport in central Maryland while trying to fix a pipe. As a result, a flood of human waste, approximately 378,600 gallons, flowed into the river until the leak was finally repaired three days later. Sometimes, damage can be minimized by using hi-tech video cameras to investigate and assess the pipes, according to Specialized Pipe Technologies.

Initially, hundreds of gallons of sewage per minute flowed from the broken pipe near Kent Street and Sidney Avenue, while crews worked hurriedly to divert the flow to another sewer main. Sandbags and various others methods were used to slow the flow and limit the surge of wastewater contaminating the nearby bodies of water. Until the pipe could be repaired, waste was being sent to and contained in a large pit dug near the site of the break.

This latest incident once again brings to focus the extensive waterway problems that the city is up against. Baltimore’s sewage system still contains ancient pipes, over 100 years old, that are in dire need of updating. At some locations, these outdated pipes still contain a mechanism known as structured overflow which allows a mix of rain and sewage water to escape when the pipes become overflowed, such as during heavy rainstorms. The particularly rainy summer which saw periods of continuous rainfall caused numerous overflows into area streams and the harbor including at Jones Falls, Gwynns Falls, and the Inner Harbor.

Baltimore City Department of Public Works (DPW) is in the process of eliminating these old pipes as part of its Headworks Project at the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant, which is part of the $2 billion Sanitary Sewer Consent Decree Program. The project is hoped to curb up to 80 percent of the volume of sewage that is overwhelming the city’s outdated sanitary sewer system to keep the streams, harbor, and Chesapeake Bay cleaner.

Components of the project include a well in which the sewage will drain into and a series of powerful pumps operating as sump pumps. The Headworks Project will cost about $430 million and go into operation by the end of 2020 with construction continuing for an additional year.