Just weeks before an impending deadline set by the State of Maryland and Environmental Protection Agency to eliminate sewage overflows, the City of Baltimore is facing a shitty situation.
A recent report by the Environmental Integrity Project and sponsored by the Abell Foundation shows that Baltimore has dumped hundreds of millions of gallons of sewage water into the Jones Falls without making the required reports to the public. Due to outdated sewer infrastructure—pipes that are cracked, pipes that get clogged, pipes that can't support the volume, especially during rainstorms—sewage sometimes flows into streets, homes, and waterways.
The city reached an agreement with the EPA and state environmental officials in 2002, which obligated Baltimore to evaluate and rehabilitee the sewage system. This includes closing sewage outfalls, building or replacing sewer lines, and "sewer rehabilitation"—cleaning, or installing new lining to increase the usefulness of the sewer.
After spending $700 million over 13 years, there's still "no end in sight," The Sun reported back in September.
As a part of the agreement, the city has closed 60 of 62 relief valves that take overflowing sewage and release it into streams when the line starts to back up. The last two remain open and sewage can continue to drain into the Jones Falls and then into the harbor.
The report also found that Baltimore City underreported the amount of sewage overflow. In about 55 percent of recorded incidents of overflow, an amount of "zero" was entered for the number of gallons spilled—even when evidence of an overflow, such as toilet paper, littered the streets. This can happen, according to the report, because it can be difficult to estimate the amount leaked after the event. Spill volume is usually estimated through gallons per minute, so if a worker can't watch an overflow event happen, there's no real way to estimate the total volume of sewage that leaked.
Jeffrey Raymond, a spokesperson for the Baltimore City Department of Public Works, said that the city is asking for an extension for the deadline to complete the sewer system overhaul. Raymond said that the extension has been in negotiation for a few months, but he was not ready to say what kind of extension the city was looking for.
Water in the Jones Falls, right before it empties into the harbor, tested higher than the freshwater standard for Enterococcus bacteria—indicating the presence of fecal matter—in 92 percent of 124 samples between June 2009 and December 2014.
Ed Bouwer, a professor and department chair of geography and environmental engineering at Johns Hopkins University, said the presence of Enterococcus may not present health risks, but rather serve as an indicator of other, potentially harmful, contaminants.
However, sewage could contain any number of pathogens (sick people can pass their illness through their feces), including several viruses and protozoa—single-celled organisms that are, in some cases, parasites in humans.
Bouwer said that protozoa, such as Cryptosporidium and Giardia, persist longest in the water supply.
"The fact that the fecal indicators are there means that there's a high likelihood those are there," Bouwer said. Both can cause diarrhea in humans.
Not the sort of organisms you want around in a "swimmable" and "fishable" harbor—the Waterfront Partnership's goal for 2020.
Adam Lindquist, director of the Healthy Harbor Initiative for the Waterfront Partnership, said he thinks the 2020 goal is still achievable. Reports like the one just put out by the Environmental Integrity Project can help raise awareness for the problem, he said.
"The greatest challenge isn't the infrastructure or the lack of funds, it's not having an engaged citizen base," Lindquist said.
Raw sewage in the harbor is disgusting enough—and it keeps the harbor from being the kind of place anyone would want to swim in. The impact spreads beyond the harbor, though, since the sewer system is a citywide infrastructure: When there's nowhere else for sewage to go, or when a main is backed up, it can flood people's homes.
The Environmental Integrity Project report showed that between July 2012 and July 2015, residents filed more than 400 claims for damage to property from sewage backups. The city paid out only 9 percent of the claims.
In some cases, water-borne diseases, like the protozoa Cryptosporidium and Giardia, could become airborne, said Bouwer. So, a person whose basement floods with sewage could, potentially, become infected, even if they aren't splashing around in the water, he said.
To be fair, not every sewage backup can be directly traced to the city's decaying infrastructure.
According to Raymond, a sewage backup can happen for any number of reasons, including blockage (from, say, paper towels, condoms, and "flushable" wet wipes) or tree roots getting in the way of sewage lines.
Raymond said that a lot of work has already been done—"We have literally hundreds of miles of line that we're working on"—but that the Department of Public Works has not finished the "enormously comprehensive program."