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Leaky Accounting

City to Reform Sewage-Overflow Reporting After Data On Citizen Complaints Prompt Federal Investigation

John Ellsberry
Deborah Cornish had to call the city multiple times this summer to get someone to address a sewer leak fouling the waters of Stony Run Creek.

By Van Smith | Posted 8/20/2008

Earlier this summer, Roland Park resident Deborah Cornish called the city's 311 complaint line about a sewer leak that was fouling the Stony Run creek, across the street from her house. Her efforts were immortalized in the city's 311 call records, which show that Cornish called about the problem five times between June 3 and June 23, reporting to the operator that "there is a large manhole at the stream and there is raw sewage coming from behind the manhole" and into Stony Run.

As weeks went by with hardly any rain, Cornish watched the leak grow from "a trickle" until it "started gushing out of there, fouling up the stream all the way down to the Loyola College dorms," about a half-mile downstream, she recalls in an early August interview. She dealt with various crews that came out repeatedly, but the city's response to the leak continued to suffer delays. Meanwhile, the sewage kept flowing into Stony Run--and ultimately, like all of the runoff coursing through Baltimore's streams and storm drains, into the Chesapeake Bay.

"You can still see where it traveled across the ground to the stream," Cornish says, pointing to detritus on the ground that had floated in the sewage flow. "It took me almost two months, but it's fixed," she says of the ordeal, though she would like to see "the scab"--the sewage-scented pile of dug-up earth left behind where the repairs were done--spruced up.

Cornish's efforts to have a hole plugged in the city's sewer system were mirrored by those of other citizens across the city who, during those same three weeks in June, called 311 about sewage flowing on sidewalks and streets, down storm drains, or into streams. In all, 311 operators logged 32 calls (including Cornish's) about such problems from June 3 to June 23. Though it is hard to determine whether these other complaints matched Cornish's in terms of being active, ongoing sewer leaks, the calls are strong indicators that residents of Baltimore are seeing sewage flowing in their parts of town.

In the Lake Walker neighborhood in North Baltimore, for instance, sewage was reported as flowing out of a manhole directly into Chinquapin Run. A "raw sewage overflow in the street" was observed in the city's Harwood neighborhood, near Greenmount Avenue and 27th Street. Multiple calls came in from Violetville, in the city's far southwest corner, where there was "sewage water coming out of manhole onto sidewalk" and "running down street." The same types of complaints came in from Butchers Hill, Allendale, Mount Washington, Forest Park, Penrose, and other neighborhoods.

Judging by what citizens described, sewage was leaking on a daily basis at numerous locations during those dry first few weeks of June. Yet the city of Baltimore's official sewer-leak tally during that three-week period was two. One on June 3 was caused by rags and grease blocking a main sewer line near Chinquapin Run, and it was estimated to have lasted 14 hours and released 3,360 gallons of sewage. During the other, on June 23 near the Gwynns Falls in West Baltimore, an estimated 7,500 gallons of sewage leaked over five hours when, similarly, a main line was clogged by grease, rags, and roots. The one Cornish called in didn't make the list of officially recognized sewer leaks.

The two leaks were reported by the city Department of Public Works (DPW) to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), as legally required. The reporting requirement is part of an agreement the city entered into in 2002 to spend about $1 billion over 14 years to fix the city's chronically leaky sewer system, which remains out of compliance with the federal Clean Water Act. Under the agreement, the city must report sewer leaks to EPA and MDE, estimate the volume of sewage that leaked in each instance, and pay fines based on those estimates.

The only sewage overflows that don't need to be reported, MDE spokeswoman Kim Lamphier says, involve 50 gallons or less discharged to an "impervious surface not reaching surface waters."

The trend in the city has been fewer leaks of less sewage reported as the legal agreement--called a consent decree--has progressed. In 2003, Baltimore City reported 143 leaks spilling more than 77 million gallons of sewage, while in '07 less than 200,000 gallons were estimated to have been released via 48 reported leaks.

The city's 311 data, however, provides a tool to double-check the city's reported sewer-leak figures. Last December, City Paper published an article reporting, among other sewer-related problems, that 311 data appear to show that the city is routinely failing to report sewer leaks under the consent decree ("Pardon Our Filth," Feature, Dec. 19, 2007). The problems continue, based on a look at more recent 311 data, including Cornish's five calls, plus another 307 similar complaints lodged from late November 2007 through June, a period when the city reported 67 leaks.

"Some of them probably needed to be reported," DPW spokesman Kurt Kocher acknowledges on Aug. 14, after City Paper shared with him its recent findings. "But some of them didn't need to be reported. Everything is being done in good faith, but there was some confusion about" which leaks rise to the level of reportability under the consent decree.

The city's sewer-leak reporting policy is being reformed, acting DPW Bureau of Water and Wastewater chief Kishia Powell adds, to guard against future instances of failing to report leaks as required. "Anything that's suspected of being an overflow or a sewer leak will be reported," she explains. "And we will sort out the doubt later. We are going to have a collaborative effort with the watershed groups to make sure we're not missing anything."

Guy Hollyday of the Baltimore Sewer Coalition, a group of affiliated watershed groups and environmentalists that each year since 2002 has put together a report about the city's sewer problems, says City Paper's findings corroborate what he's been saying for years. "As I have tried to show," Hollyday writes in an e-mail, "in many instances where nothing has been reported to the MDE, sewage appears to have flowed to a water course. Your findings seem to show the same."

The city's failure to report verified sewer leaks under the consent decree results in the avoidance of fines, but it also leads to public misperceptions about efforts to stem water pollution. Massive investments in sewer upgrades paid for by raising the rates for water and sewer service appear, based on the official record, to be paying off with fewer leaks and less sewage making its way into the Baltimore Harbor and the Chesapeake Bay. In January, for instance, The Sun ran an article based on sewer-leak data reported by Maryland jurisdictions to MDE that concluded the amount of sewage reported as entering the state's waters had fallen to the lowest amount since 2001. But in Baltimore, citizens calling to complain about the sewage flowing out of a manhole on their street, or gushing into a nearby stream, may find that record of improvement hard to believe.

EPA plans to make sure the city's sewer-leak record-keeping is in order, spokesman David Sternberg says. He confirms that his agency continues to investigate Baltimore's performance under the consent decree, and among the issues under investigation is whether or not the city has failed to report sewer leaks, or has underestimated the amounts leaked. To further those efforts, Sternberg says, EPA recently asked the city to explain how it responded to 311 reports of apparent sewer leaks.

"We're looking at all of it--where it's coming from and where it's going," Sternberg says of Baltimore's leaking sewage. "You're making some very serious allegations about the city's reporting," he adds, "and we're taking them very seriously, and the investigation is ongoing."

Additional reporting by Chris Landers

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Tags: stony run, chesapeake, sewage

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