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Mobtown Beat

What to Doo?

Legal fight over city’s sewer-fixing program erupts as Baltimore’s polluted water puts on a show

Photo: Van Smith, License: N/A

Van Smith

An orange containment boom next to a pedestrian bridge at the inner harbor tries to hold back smelly clumps of black solids that have floated to the top.


On July 31 Blue Water Baltimore (BWB), a nonprofit group that works to reverse the degradation of Baltimore’s polluted harbor, rivers, and streams, filed court papers asking for a seat at the table of a federal Clean Water Act lawsuit that, since 2002, has required the city to make hundreds of millions of dollars in repairs to its sewer system. The timing was fateful: While BWB, in the face of opposition from the lawsuit’s existing parties at all levels of government, continues to make its case, one of the most visible stretches of the city’s watersheds—the Jones Falls where it enters Baltimore’s harbor, between Pier 5 and the Marriott Inner Harbor Hotel—has been putting on a foul display of its chronic pollution problems, serving as a reminder of how far from clean Baltimore’s waters remain despite the sewer-repair efforts.

The Jones Falls’ odiferous and sometimes visibly shocking water-pollution show has gone on recently before passing crowds in the city’s main tourist area. Fish dying of suffocation in the oxygen-deprived waters or coming to the surface to gasp for air, reeking clumps of floating black solids backing up behind an orange containment boom next to a pedestrian bridge, and so-called “turnover events” in which bacteria suddenly cause the river to turn striking shades of light-greenish blue—all have occurred since BWB’s motion was filed. One longtime observer of this stretch of the river, J. Adam Frederick, who works at the nearby Columbus Center as an education specialist at the Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology, says, “I have documented this and observed this over the last 15 years, and this year has been the worst yet.”

BWB’s legal move was prompted not by this year’s manifestations of Baltimore’s water-pollution problems but by negotiations between the lawsuit’s existing parties—the city, state, and federal governments—to extend the deadline for finishing the required sewer repairs, according to court documents, and by the fact that BWB has documented the city’s continuing failure to comply with the lawsuit’s requirement that illegal discharges of sewage cease. But the Jones Falls’ recent pollution displays underscore that perhaps, after more than a decade of work costing hundreds of millions of dollars under a consent decree between the parties, the effort could benefit from the input of an independent, outside group like BWB, with specialized knowledge of local water pollution. Whether that happens is in the hands of U.S. District Judge Frederick Motz, who has yet to rule on BWB’s motion.

The governments argue that BWB’s move is untimely and unnecessary. In the city’s response, city solicitor George Nilson adds that giving BWB a seat at the negotiating table over the consent decree will divert “the governments’ (and taxpayers’) limited resources away from implementing” the sewer repairs, the costs of which have amounted to nearly $600 million so far, according to court documents, and have prompted “wastewater utility rates [to be] increased by at least nine percent every year” since 2002, with the exception of 2008.

But BWB contends that “oversight and enforcement” of the city’s efforts by the lawsuit’s other two parties—the Maryland Department of the Environment and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency—“have been insufficient to ensure compliance” and wants to join in the litigation “for the purposes of addressing the prevalence of unlawful sewage incidents and the proposed amendments” to the sewer-repair plan.

BWB’s water-quality manager, David Flores, points out that his group’s efforts to keep tabs on water-pollution problems in Baltimore are extensive, with 22 pollution-monitoring locations in the Baltimore harbor and another 28 in the Jones Falls and the Gwynns Falls. Data from BWB’s program, Flores says, supplement those compiled by the Baltimore Ecosystem Study, a long-term scientific study of the Gwynns Falls, and the city Department of Public Works (DPW) on the Jones Falls. This data can be useful to the consent-decree discussion, Flores says, by providing “trend analysis of the data over time” to see whether a “reduction in bacterial contamination” is occurring, as one would expect from the extensive sewer repairs. Flores also says a seat for BWB at the consent-decree table would mean the litigation would benefit from the group’s ongoing efforts to “characterize and report sewage pollution, verify sewage issues, and help the city to respond to sewage overflows.”

In the meantime, the Jones Falls continues to provide evidence of how badly improvements are needed. “It’s been like once a week or more this summer, and sometimes day after day, when the Jones Falls would turn this pistachio-green color,” observes Frederick. He says the “weird color” is produced by “green and purple sulfur-loving bacteria” that come to the surface during turnover events, when, over a period of hours and usually due to shifts in air temperature, the deep and shallow levels of water in the Jones Falls switch places. “Whatever is on the bottom”—including the bacteria, which release sulfur-scented gas—“is going to come to the surface during a turnover event,” Frederick explains. The floating black clumps may be related, Frederick adds, calling them “chunks of that sulfur mat in the sediments on the bottom” of the river that get “dislodged by repeat turnover events.”

It’s a “pretty raw situation,” Frederick says of the overall water-quality picture at the harbor-end of the Jones Falls, “and it takes a toll on the aquatic system because the bacteria blooms don’t produce oxygen, they tend to consume it, and that really creates problems for the fish in the harbor.

“I’m sure the Marriott is thrilled at all this,” Frederick says, “and all the dead fish make quite a sight, too, for all the people standing on those pedestrian bridges.”

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