Baltimore City takes on projects to cut back on sewage overflows

BALTIMORE - City crews blocked off a portion of the road for a process they call "pipe bursting."

"Hindsight is always 20/20. It's an ounce of prevention is always easier than a pound of cure. And we're sort of in the pound of cure mode right now," said Madeleine Driscoll with the Department of Public Works.

Aging infrastructure is problem all too familiar for Baltimore residents. Many of the city's wastewater pipes, old clay tubes with joints every three feet,date back to the early 1900s.

"Those joints allow roots to intrude. The clay pipe is a little bit brittle so it's prone to cracks, which again allows the roots to get in," Driscoll said.

It's not just roots clogging the system.

"We have seen deposits of grease that have been there for decades that are like cement," Driscoll said.

The city kicked off a 'FOG' program last year, aiming to cut down on the fats, oils, and grease flowing through the sewer system.

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"It can get pretty messy. But I think if you know what you're doing it can cut back on the mess," said Khari Keyes, an inspector for the FOG program.

Keyes has been checking area restaurants for about a year, making sure they're managing their grease levels and what goes into their drains properly.

"Due to the amount of fats, oils, and grease that's been going into the city's pipelines has been causing a lot of sewage back ups. A lot of drains basically back up into the streets or manholes that may even pop off as well," Keyes said,

"It happens at least four, sometimes five times a year," said Patricia Shiflett, who has lived in her Greenspring Avenue home since 1950.

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About once every three months, a river of a different kind flows through her back alley.

"It comes down with enough force that it raises that manhole cover and the raw sewage and you can see evidence of it even today where there's still some toilet tissue left on the property," Shiflett said.

Each time, she said, the city responds quickly. But Shiflett worries it might not be soon enough.

"It goes into the stream which runs along my property," she said.

Sometimes the raw sewage gushes across the property for days at a time, she added.

"It's not just the toilet paper. It's what goes along with it that kind of nasty," Shiflett said.

She's not alone.

Since 2010, the city reported almost 2,400 sewage spills, mostly relatively small spills, a few hundreds gallons of wastewater or less.

In 2002, Baltimore entered a consent decree, which requires the city to fund a wastewater collection system evaluation and rehabilitation program. But they're not stopping there.

"We feed them a steady diet of work," Driscoll said. This is pipe bursting which is one of the more technologically advanced projects, but they do cleaning for us, they do CCTV, point repairs..."

The upgrades to cut back on sewage spills flow all the way to the wastewater treatment plant itself.

"Wastewater facilities are here to treat the sewage, which is one part of the puzzle," said Nicholas Frankos, Plant Manager at the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant.

Frankos says they've got at least three major projects going on to upgrade their system.

"This will all be torn out and redone," Frankos said, pointing to a construction site at the plant.

He says their new Head Works project will cut back on sewage overflows.

"Right now, we're actually a little bit constraining the flow and backing up the system. And when this is all completed the sewer system will have a free flow," Frankos said.

They're also building storage facilities and clearing out main lines that compares to clogged arteries.

"The lines that come into this plant are like 96 inches and in some cases, you might have half of that filled with grit and debris over a 50 year period or 100 years that it's built up," he said.

For Shiflett, knowing upgrades are coming down the pipeline is good news.

"You can see the extent of where the flow is. It's not a trickle. It really comes gushing out. You can see evidence of toilet tissue that's still left there," she said, pointing behind her house.

The consent decree is set to be completed in 2016.

Frankos says all of the projects going on at the Wastewater Treatment Plant are aimed to improve the health of the Chesapeake Bay.

Driscoll says they're seeing sewage leaking into basements far too often. She expects the major construction to wrap up within the next five years.

Other methods Baltimore officials have approved to clean up the city: