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The Reek Goes On

Despite clean-up efforts, Baltimore's filthy harbor water continues to cause a stink

Van Smith
Shari Wilson (left photograph, second from right) accepts $122 million in federal funds to help keep Maryland's water clean; (right photograph) dirty Inner Harbor water.

By Van Smith | Posted 6/10/2009

Nutrients are supposed to be good for you, but in Baltimore's Inner Harbor, they can trigger gag-inducing odors. From Memorial Day weekend into early June, people along the waterfront--and in neighborhoods dozens of blocks away--couldn't escape the stench of rot. The polluted waters of the Patapsco River, rich in nitrogen and phosphorus from waste that washes into the harbor from storm drains and industrial facilities, had proved a perfect medium for an algae bloom to flourish. When it quickly died off, it decomposed and deprived the water of oxygen, which then suffocated fish in the harbor.

The putrefying fish and algae sent an unholy stink over the greater downtown area, temporarily dampening the quality of life for tourists, residents, and businesses alike. Daniel Toland, a Rusty Scupper restaurant manager, called City Paper to describe what he called "the phenomenon" he'd witnessed from the harborfront eatery.

"I had one guest describe it as like being in a Stephen King movie, watching all the fish die," Toland said. The city's trash-collecting boats "would scoop them up by the thousands, and then 25 minutes later, you'd see more fish just--pop, pop, pop--popping up. I mean, it was incredible--not to mention the stink. It was kind of scary, seeing all those fish die. Was it the algae? Was there a spill at Sparrows Point? I mean, there were all kinds of stories going around."

It was the algae, not a chemical spill, but the algae wouldn't flourish in the harbor water without high nutrient levels. The biochemistry behind the massive die-off of the harbor's aquatic life is something scientists understand (see "In Bloom," Mobtown Beat, June 3, 2009), but regular folks just see brown, murky waters and dead fish--and recoil from the resulting olfactory attack. Regulars around the harbor may recall that this smelly confluence of circumstances tends to strike periodically during summer, adding to the ever-present problem of smelly, unsightly trash floating about.

The odor of fish and algae rotting is different from another familiar harbor scent: that of raw sewage. The latter tends to waft during and after intense rainfall--though sometimes also in dry weather--wherever the city's storm-drain system empties everything that flows off the region's streets, parking lots, roofs, and lawns into the Patapsco River. But the two aromas are not unrelated. Sewage, which in Baltimore oftentimes flows in storm drains due to a leaky, overflowing municipal sewer system, joins street run-off and industrial-plant discharges to contribute excess nutrients to harbor water--though, according to an analysis by the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), sewage overflows are a miniscule part of the problem.

The MDE analysis estimates that sewage comprises less than one percent of the urban contribution to the Chesapeake Bay's nutrient overload. But MDE secretary Shari Wilson, interviewed by City Paper at a June 2 press conference in Bladensburg to accept a $122 million federal check to help assuage the state's water-quality problems, says that in Baltimore, that figure is likely understated. "It's probably more than one percent in the Baltimore Harbor," Wilson says.

One possible explanation for MDE's apparently low sewage estimate is that the numbers used in the analysis--based on the amounts reported to MDE in 2000--understate the actual volume of sewage entering the Chesapeake Bay from urban sewer systems like Baltimore's. Since the City of Baltimore, under the terms of a federal Clean Water Act lawsuit, is in the middle of spending nearly a billion dollars over 14 years to stop up its leaky sewer system ("Pardon Our Filth," Feature, Dec. 19, 2007), one would expect that sewage contributes significantly more than one percent to the Patapsco's nutrient overload. Otherwise, a lot of money and effort are being expended to fix a problem that hardly matters.

After comparing the amounts of sewage reported as leaked by the city's Department of Public Works (DPW) to descriptions of sewer overflows and leaks reported by citizens to the city's 311 system, City Paper reported last summer that DPW admitted underreporting the problem to state and federal authorities ("Leaky Accounting," Mobtown Beat, Aug. 20, 2008). Accurate self-reporting of sewer leaks is required of the city by law, but--given that the more leakage reported, the more fines are levied against the city--the system has a built-in incentive to low-ball the numbers.

Wilson, asked if Baltimore taxpayers paying ever-higher water bills to help underwrite the sewer-system repairs can expect to see cleaner, less smelly harbor waters, is cautiously optimistic. Thanks to the $122 million from the federal government, and a "whole host of initiatives and programs" to reduce nutrients entering the Chesapeake, including Baltimore's sewer upgrades, she says "we're going to see a gradual improvement--and it is going to be gradual.

"In places like Baltimore," she adds, "you're still going to see the floatables, the trash, and from time to time we'll have these algae die-offs. But I don't think people should be discouraged. I understand the cynicism. We've been here before, and we've said we have a plan in place. But really, we're going to get there."

Related stories

Mobtown Beat archives

In Bloom: Everything you ever wanted to know about the algae causing the Inner Harbor stench

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Related by keywords

In Bloom : Everything you ever wanted to know about the algae causing the Inner Harbor stench 6/10/2009

Leaky Accounting : City to Reform Sewage-Overflow Reporting After Data On Citizen Complaints Prompt Federal Investigation 8/20/2008

Plug It Up : EPA Tells City to Fix Sewage Leaks 2/13/2008

Pardon Our Filth : City Sewage Keeps Flowing Into The Bay While Baltimore's Sewer System Gets a Billion-Dollar Fix 12/19/2007

Tags: polluted harbor, algae, sewage

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