It was the morning after a long, pounding rainstorm and all the signs – and smells – made it clear: the 3900 Belair Road “volcano,” as some call it, had erupted again.
Used condoms, surgical gloves, baby wipes, toilet paper, old Covid masks, rags and a bag of syringe caps were found scattered around the manhole cover cracked open from the force of the up-welling sewer water.
Nearby, bushes were festooned with miscellaneous bits of plastic. A purple sock lay in the streambed. The odor of human waste was strong.
In the wake of the January 9 storm that swept the mid-Atlantic region, an overflow had occurred once again at this notorious sewer stack owned by the city just a few feet from the Belair Road Bridge crossing of Herring Run, a tributary of Back River that dumps into Chesapeake Bay.
This one was nearly 1 million (975,240 gallons) of untreated sewage, which beat last year’s record holder of 647,130 million gallons that erupted on September 12, the day flooding elsewhere destroyed several businesses, including a dry cleaner, in North Baltimore and swamped basements and parked cars.
“It’s a poopy stream – it’s been this way for years, just disgusting,” sighed Patty Mackin Dowd, a former coordinator of the Friends of Herring Run. “It’s so sad Herring Run has been allowed to remain this way,”
Along with degrading the environment, Dowd said, the multi-million-gallon sewage releases endangers public health.
“In hot weather, just downstream at Bowley’s Lane, it’s like the Baltimore Riviera, with a lot of people, a lot of Hispanic families coming to cool off,” Dowd said, noting the presence also of beavers, eagles and herons despite the pollution.
Longtime stream watcher Dowd is discouraged by the sight of blown-off manhole covers she has spotted lying in the bushes from the sewer stacks that protrude up from the 48-inch sewer main that runs all along the stream.
Fixes Long Overdue
Baltimore was supposed to have eliminated sewage overflows like this by now under a 2002 federal consent decree that was “modified” in 2017 after the city failed to meet the deadline to complete the work.
But despite massive sewage infrastructure spending, including the $430 million Back River Headworks Project completed in 2021, there continue to be sewage leaks and erupting manhole stacks across the city.
“Why do we continue to see the sewage overflows during heavy rain events if we have already sunk all of this funding into the headworks project,” asked Blue Water Baltimore’s Alice Volpitta, the Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper.
Community members like Dowd and environmental watchdogs like Volpitta say there hasn’t been enough progress – and, by some measures, the problem is getting worse.
Overflows from the 3900 Belair Road sewer stack are almost entirely responsible for recently spiking overflow readings in the Back River watershed, according to Department of Public Works (DPW) data. Citywide, these SSOs (Sanitary Sewer Overflows) increased in 2023 over the previous year.
Sanitary Sewer Overflows were on the rise in Baltimore in 2023, DPW monthly reports show.
Asked to comment on the issues raised by Volpitta and others, DPW has yet to provide a response.
So-called “structured overflows” – intentional release points built into sewer stacks to act as a relief valve – were supposed to be shut down under the 2002 consent decree.
But DPW reports show many of them remain open, including some of the worst offenders. For example, amid heavy rain on January 9, 2024:
• Sewer Outfall 67, at 1901 Falls Road near the Baltimore Streetcar Museum, released 9.1 million gallons.
• Sewer Outfall 72, at 428 East Preston Street near the Jones Falls Expressway, released 4.1 million gallons.
“When we signed the consent decree originally, the shut-off date for Outfall 67, this worst offender, was January 2021,” Volpitta said. “So we’re already like three years past the deadline for some of these projects.”
Thanks to these still-open relief points, together with cracked and failing pipes that leak sewage when there is heavy rain or snow melt, raw sewage mixes with stormwater and discharges out into city streams like Herring Run, Jones Falls and Gwynns Falls.
“We really shouldn’t be seeing this at this point,” Vopitta said. “What’s going on?”
The video above shows a May 27, 2018 overflow at Outfall 67 at 1901 Falls Road near the Streetcar Museum. Overflows are still occurring here.
Basement Backups Persist
Volpitta plans to ask that question and others at the annual Sanitary Sewer Consent Decree Public Information Session tonight, an opportunity for public engagement required by the consent decree.
In an emailed announcement about the 6 p.m. meeting (to be held at Maryland Department of the Environment headquarters, 1800 Washington Boulevard), officials touted the agency’s progress to date.
“The city is doing more to prevent sewer system overflows, and complete sanitary consent decree projects in a way that is economical for the people of Baltimore,” said Interim DPW Director Richard J. Luna.
Along with sewage overflows, a related issue covered under the decree sure to confront Luna and his staff tonight: Basement sewage backups.
Advocates have long complained about what they see as foot-dragging by the city on needed changes to programs designed to help people who have experienced costly and hazardous basement sewage back-ups.
Last summer, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ordered DPW to broaden its pilot direct assistance program, which is supposed to dispatch a contractor to clean sewage from a person’s home.
EPA says the city program should cover not just wet-weather events, but dry-weather events as well, and send cleanup crews any time a resident’s sewage backup originates from a main sewer line.
Currently, the sewage lines that run to individual residences from the city system are the homeowners’ responsibility to maintain.
DPW has defended keeping the program limited in scope, citing liability issues. Federal officials and advocate groups have been pushing back.
“If it was conditions in the city sewer line that the resident could not possibly have done anything to prevent, because it’s in public part of the sewer, then the city should provide that emergency assistance,” said Jennifer Kunze, Maryland organizing director for Clean Water Action.
“The city needs to make sure people aren’t left to clean up sewage on their own or let it fester, both of which are very hazardous,” Kunze said.
“The city needs to make sure people aren’t left to clean up sewage on their own or let it fester” – Jennifer Kunze, Clean Water Action.
Between 2018 and 2021, there were at least 8,860 reported residential sewage backups in Baltimore caused at least partially by conditions in the city-owned portion of the pipe system, a DPW reports shows.
But during that time, only 34 people received financial or direct cleanup assistance through the existing programs, largely due to the severe eligibility limitations of the programs.
In 2019, when The Brew identified 3900 Belair Road as an outsized source of the city’s sewage pollution, DPW officials said “much of the overflow problem” would be eliminated by the headworks project.
But that hasn’t happened:
• Back River watershed overflows jumped from 2,414,537 gallons in 2022 to 4.4 4,410,848 gallons in 2023. That was an 83% increase.
• The 3900 Belair Road stack accounted for most of the watershed’s sewage last year, contributing 4,296,635 gallons – or 97% – of the watershed’s total.
Overflows there may not be as massive as before, but why do they persist?
Blue Water Baltimore’s Volpitta thinks she knows part of the answer. She points to a problem DPW has identified and is ostensibly working on a clogged interceptor line feeding the new headworks infrastructure.
While the headworks theoretically doubled the capacity to handle the heavy rainfall that infiltrates the system, sediment built up in the sewer lines leading to it creates a choke point.
“That big main interceptor is still chock full of sewer sediment and debris. That’s a polite way of saying it is clogged with toilet paper” and excrement, Volpitta said.
Belatedly, the city has begun tackling the problem.
“Contractors are scraping out and hydro-blasting all of that caked-in sediment to relieve the capacity restriction on the main line but it’s taking so long,” she said. “It needs to be a priority.”
“We need to know what resources are being put into this work and when will it be completed? ” Volpitta continued. “How can we expedite it? Because we really shouldn’t be seeing sewage overflows at the level that we still are today.”