Friday, December 18, 2015

Drowning in sh***

Once upon a time, a bit less than a hundred years ago, when Abel Wolman led a campaign to chlorinate drinking water, Baltimore was a beacon of progress in matters of clean water and sewage disposal.

Today we are a laggard. Baltimore like many older US cities is struggling to keep up with fixing what has been put in the ground back then and now finally reaches the end of its life span. The deterioration of the pipes that made up the then modern system with separate water and sewer lines (something that many older European citiesand some US cities have never managed to do) has resulted in leaking sewage pipes releasing sewage into streams and leaking water pipes leaking valuable  treated drinking water in huge quantities into the ground.
Infrastructure repairs (Baltimore SUN)

Most damaging, though, is the fact that the pipe deterioration and lack of oversight how the two separate systems were managed, has led to a situation where the systems are not really separate any more; much stormwater has been illegally directed into sewer pipes and sometimes even sewage is entered into stormwater pipes. The chief reason for the mixing is that sewage lines have become so leaky that they take on lots of stormwater every time it rains hard, busting their capacity and leading to additional spills beyond those occurring daily under regular load conditions.  Capacity busting happens at the pipes themselves and at the treatment plants. The most onerous result is that two pipe overflows designed as safety valves direct the raw sewage directly into the Jones Falls River when the pipes are full and threaten to back up into basements (which they frequently do anyway).

According to the report by the Environmental Integrity Project released this week with support from the Abell Foundation, the amount of sewage flowing straight into the Jones Falls and into the Harbor is in excess of 66 million gallons a year over the last five years. That volume is about the content of 100 Olympic size swimming pools (25m x 50m) or a a full pool of sewage every 3.65 days.

That is a whole lot of stink considering that sewer lines contain toilet waste, dishwasher drain water, laundry water and whatever comes out of a bath tub, an extremely unhealthy mix to flow straight into the Inner Harbor. The famous solar power waterwheel at the mouth of the Jones Falls does under those circumstances little more than picking flies off a pile of sh**.

Can one blame the Mayor, the Council and the Department of Public Works for the mess? Hardly, Baltimore is in the company of 48 other cities which have a consent decree with the federal Environment Protection Agency (EPA), all in violation of the Clean Water Act. But what the city can be blamed for is that with $2 billion dollars of money collected from steeply increased sewer and water fees, it hasn't accomplished more than getting only half way to the goal at the end of the federally mandated deadline which is January 1, 2016. In that Olympic 50 m pool the city swimmers just got to the 25 meter mark when the whistle blew for the end of the race. That is a very poor performance, and as the report outlines worse than many of the other 48 cities, many of which also need extensions of their deadlines.
Water main repair (Baltimore SUN)
EPA Spokesman David Sternberg said EPA is considering the city’s request for an extension and new deadline for the consent decree, which would have to be approved by the U.S. District Court for Maryland. “EPA and MDE have aggressively overseen the 2002 federal Consent Decree with the City of Baltimore which specifically addresses the control of sanitary sewer overflows in the City,” Sternberg said.39 “The consent decree allows the EPA and MDE to assess stipulated penalties for failure to comply with different elements of the decree. To date Baltimore has paid almost $1.7 million in stipulated penalties (in addition to the $600,000 penalty imposed by the decree itself).” (Report)
There are many good reasons why things are the way they are, including a large and critical sewer main that either sank or was built wrong in the first place. It restricts the flow beyond the issue of size of pipes and requires a big dollar comprehensive fix that is still in design since the first design has been deemed not affordable  once the bids came in.

Along with the sunken pipe one gets the sinking feeling that the City really isn't on top of the problem and that it may not have approached the problem in sufficient urgency, with sufficient diligence and in the strictest logical sequence.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA