Environmental officials blame aging infrastructure for sewage overflows in Maryland

In the middle of a storm that flooded the East Coast and dumped two feet of snow on western Maryland, the Little Patuxent Water Reclamation Plant in Howard County lost power.

As a result of the Oct. 29, 2012 power outage triggered by Superstorm Sandy, 19 million gallons of diluted, yet untreated, sewage poured into the river.

That’s roughly the equivalent of the amount of sewage the plant treats on an average day, though it can treat more than 50 million gallons per day on rainy days. It treats two-thirds of Howard County’s wastewater, said Steve Gerwin, Howard County’s bureau chief for utilities.  

The incident at the plant—the fifth-largest in Maryland—prompted Howard County Executive Ken Ulman to push for an $8 million project to provide solar and generator backup at the plant.

Solar energy is estimated to save around $22,800 per year in electricity costs, and will reduce the plant’s carbon footprint by 207.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide a year, county leaders say.

Gerwin said sewage spills seem to be happening more and more.

Another one was narrowly avoided July 8 when storms swept through the area. Luckily, a generator bought an extra 45 minutes after the power outage, allowing utility workers to get on the scene and make repairs before any sewage overflowed.

There were 23 sewage spills reported in Howard County to the Maryland Department of the Environment in 2012, compared with 10 in 2013.

This year, there have been three reported spills so far. The largest was 70,000 gallons in April.  

“My opinion is, whether you believe in climate change or not, you have to agree the storms are getting more severe,” Gerwin said.

There was Hurricane Irene in 2011 , then the derecho during the summer of 2012 and then Superstorm Sandy later that year, he said.  

Region-wide problem

The story is the same throughout the region. Sewage overflows at pumping stations, often during heavy storms, leading to tens of thousands or even millions of wastewater in streams and rivers.

“It is a significant issue if you think about it from a public health standpoint, because of the number of pathogens in the wastewater,” said Alison Prost, Maryland’s director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “It is definitely a source of nitrogen and phosphorous as well.”

Five years ago, the Maryland Department of the Environment began fining municipalities of sewage systems, unless the system owner can demonstrate the overflow was beyond their control and in spite of taking all reasonable steps to maintain and improve the infrastructure.

Penalties for sewage overflows can range from $1,000 to $32,500 per day. MDE collected $87,450 in financial penalties relating to sewage overflows from Jan. 1, 2013, through April of this year. Owners of pumping stations must report overflows to the state within a day.

Extreme weather rarely leads to fines, said Jay Apperson, a spokesman for MDE.

“When you have something like (Hurricane) Irene or Lee or Sandy, that’s such an unusual circumstance,” Apperson said. “It is incumbent on the operator of the facility to present their case and show how an overflow could not be prevented.”

Officials often blame ailing infrastructure for overflows, a subject came up earlier this week when Sen. Ben Cardin and Sen. Barbara Mikulski toured the Lake Montebello Water Treatment Plant No. 1, the city’s 99-year-old plant.

Some of the pipes inside the plant are even older, dating back to the 1800s.

Both senators called for a renewed investment in the nation’s infrastructure, both at water plants and wastewater treatment plants.

Mikulski is pushing for legislation that will give Maryland $1.25 billion to spend on infrastructure projects, including $40 million for wastewater and $20 million for drinking water.

“We’re not the only city that is facing this challenge,” said Art Shapiro, division chief of water and wastewater engineering in the city’s Department of Public Works.

Consent decrees

Baltimore City, as well as Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Howard counties, entered into consent decrees with MDE, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Justice to upgrade their wastewater systems.

“There has been an extreme amount of investigation to determine the condition of our wastewater infrastructure,” said Kurt Kocher, a spokesman for the city DPW.

The verdict?

“It’s like with the water lines—we’re past the period where they should have been replaced,” Kocher said.

But undertaking a major sewer project is hard to sell to the public, he said. It’s expensive, and it’s not visually appealing.

“It’s not sexy,” Kocher said. “It’s not like building a new bridge, where you have a ribbon cutting ceremony.”

Prost said local governments also fell victim to the “out of sight, out of mind” way of thinking.

“When a pipe is buried in the ground—you might not know there is a big problem until there is a very big problem,” she said.

The vast majority of the city’s wastewater pipes were built between 1910 and 1930, when there was an influx of people moving into the

city. Another boom period occurred in the 1950s.

In 2002, the city entered into a $1 billion consent decree that runs through 2016, but overflows continue. Since Jan. 1, 2010, the city reported nearly 2,400 sewage spills, though most were small—a few hundred gallons of wastewater or less.  

Only one was more than 1 million gallons. That was during a heavy rainstorm on March 10, 2011, when 4.4 million gallons of wastewater spilled into the Jones Falls from the pumping station at 400 E. Eager St.

Ongoing initiatives, Kocher said, include an abatement program to cut down on the amount of drain-clogging fats, oils and grease that customers deposit into the system, and efforts to treat tree roots that cause sewage to back up.

Ed Adams, director of Baltimore County’s Department of Public Works, said the county is nine years into its 15-year decree, which requires a $900 million investment in the sewer systems. So far, the county has spent $600 million on upgrades, paid through mainly with rate increases and a few grants.

The county is also spending millions more on new pipes.

Baltimore County officials reported hundreds of sewage flows over the last three years, 13 of which resulted in more than one million gallons of wastewater spilling into the water.

According to MDE statistics, one of those spills occurred on Feb. 12, when 1.6 gallons of wastewater overflowed on Ashland Road in Cockeysville, the result of a mechanical failure.

The Patapsco Pump Station on Annapolis Road overflowed twice on Aug. 28, 2011, the result of Hurricane Irene. A total of 98,671,000 gallons of wastewater overflowed.

Less than a year later, in March 2012, another 55 million gallons of wastewater overflowed at the station’s force main.

Baltimore County has invested more than $55 million over the past five years in the pumping station to fix problems and is continuing to make improvements, including adding a second force main, Adams said.

During a heavy storm, that station might treat as much as 80 million gallons of wastewater, Adams said. After a pipe blew during Irene, the station was flooded within seconds.

Adams began working for Baltimore County for nearly 28 years, before stations had backup generators or other spare power sources. Power would be lost, stations would overflow and nothing would be done.

“Today, we go to every effort not to spill a five gallon bucket,” he said. “Baltimore County has definitely, definitely taken a proactive approach to preventing any kind of sewage spills whatsoever.”

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