Hurricane Irene Overwhelms Sewage Systems, Releases Millions of Gallons of Waste
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.
Sewage overflows during rainstorms are not unique to Maryland. 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 consume 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. Before this weekend’s storm, 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. But 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 was 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.
In part 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.
Because of 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.
Some sewer line work has already been completed along the Stony Run stream in North Baltimore. City residents will notice major construction 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 in Baltimore, La Vale and elsewhere. But from cleaner streams may flow a healthier economy and a cleaner conscience when we hear the sound of rain.
Long before it even yet appeared on my screen, I was specifically thinking as I started reading your post about LaVale and Braddock Run. Staton and I both know a remarkable resident who lived on this stream for many a year, and he is incensed about what all goes on there.
According to him (and I've not known this fine, anonymous angler to exaggerate even a little), it does NOT take a major precipitation event to prompt a quite substantial overflow in this particular case... so something doesn't quite pass the smell test, as if the actions are willful.
Recent 'environmental' work done in that watershed, even some supposedly intended to remedy certain problems to directly benefit fish, have had just the opposite effect, with little or no accountability resulting. These are astonishing snafus in this day and age, IMO. Call me naive, but an environmental project should not be deemed successful just because the money was obtained and then spent, especially when it may leave the environment is worse shape than had NOTHING been done. Yet this seems to have been the case here.
As a small boy I grew up on Herring Run, near Mt. Pleasant GC, and well remember the skull and crossbones signs, and lack of nearly all aquatic life there at the time. The only fish I ever found there was a dead carp, apparently tossed from the Northern Parkway bridge. Although in a sizeable pool, I managed to retrieve it... so unusual was sighting an actual fish, and so strong was my desire to be around and understand them. I understand that at one time many years ago Herring Run supported quite a gudgeon run (and presumably no few herring).
I don't think there is enough serious thought that goes into correcting the problem. Even where I'm located, townships loved it when it rained and they could discharge the plants. Some of those practices have stopped but sure most have not.
Patapsco Sewer Main Ruptures, Overflows
Sewage Line Repair Work May Take Days
BALTIMORE HIGHLANDS, Md. -- It may take days to repair a ruptured 54-inch line that carries about 17 million gallons of sewage daily.
Baltimore County officials released a statement Monday indicating that the line ruptured in an area east of Old Annapolis Road in the Baltimore Highlands area at about midnight Sunday.
The pipe carries sewage from the western half of Baltimore County to the Patapsco Treatment Plant in Baltimore City. At last report Monday night, the overflow continued to spill into the area.
Baltimore County Department of Public Works hired Spiniello Companies Inc., a major utility contractor, to replace the line. Crews from the city of Baltimore and the Washington Sanitary Sewer Commission are supporting the effort.
Engineers said they expect the repair to take four days. DPW said the line had no history of failures.
The Baltimore County Department of Health's Environmental Health Services unit will monitor water quality in the Patapsco area.
Dont you love how casual MDE is over the whole issue......post a sign and wait a week......we are working on the problem and should have it fixed in ten years.....WTF!
But what many of you dont know is there is another issue to this topic that many dont talk about. The Govenor and CBF have gone of a crusade to save the bay by pointing the finger at development on septic systems. This is not an enviromental issue but an urban sprawl issue conserned about government spending on infrastructure.
Many of us that want to save the bay instead of just talk about it.....believe that "modern" septic systems are far from bad for the bay.....but actually part of the solution for the bay.....of course only in some areas where soils/water table conditions permit.
Lets look at the isssue closer:
Public sewer allows for high density building ....the main problem in itself.....there are just too many people living in the bay area.
But septic systems require larger lot sizes and certain sensitize land pieces would not be able to be developed under onsite septic criterea....thus lessening the burden on the watershed.
Septic systems usually are part of a scientific process called the "water cycle". Water is pulled from the ground via a well...used...the returned to the ground by the septic system for cleaning...and the "re-use"....another big term these days.
Sewer systems are no part of this process. They draw water from one location and release it in another, usually the surface waters of the bay. Many groundwater levels are sinking throughout the State and this may be a reason.
Many people think that septic systems are a primitive type of construction and inferior to public sewer but for the most part this just is not so.......they are just different....like water from a well...they have their limits.
Here is a big one!
The topic of this post was on how storm water is getting into leaky sewer pipes and causing over flows. Well if these pipes let storm water in then they also let sewage out! The State is spending millions to upgrade sewage plants to ENR treatment for nitrogen but in many places this sewage is leaking out into the groundater and surface waters before it can be treated for anything. Then people will criticize the pollution must be coming from septic system...all the while the culprit was just as easily from public sewer.
A septic system will never....repeat never.....pump millions of gallons of raw sewage into the bay.....but as we see public sewer does it all the time.
Another issue not usually addressed with public sewer is that a waste water treatment plant uses an incredible amount of electricity to operate...this causes an increase in fossil fuel burning in this areas to meet the energy demand which causes an increase in atmopheric nitrogen pollution.....nitrogen reducing septic systems use a minimal amount of energy.
Hopefully, many of us will be better educated in the near future but government does nothing in a hurry.
Someone always has the answer but they may not be the people talking.
I thought about taking two 5 gallon buckets of raw sewage into the state house and spilling them right in front of the law makers.
I figure they do not seem to care I have to fish / crab / scuba dive in it - then they should not mind working in it. What's ten gallons when millions get released every storm ?
Good lawyer friend talked me out of it. If it was viewed as a stunt , I was off the hook with just a warning / day in jail.
If it went bad - some very serious charges could be placed on me - huge clean up costs as well.
I still think about it every time another sewage spill is announced.
What could be more mundane than dying of old age or of natural causes when there is death by misadventure to be pursued ? Skip