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Harbor sewage smell mystery deepens

The mystery over what's caused the sewage smell in the Inner Harbor deepened today, as members of the watershed watchdog group Blue Water Baltimore reported seeing telltale debris floating in water that's reportedly turned grey since last Friday's downpour.

David Flores, the group's water quality manager, and Tina Meyers, the Harbor Waterkeeper, spotted items they said are often seen after a sewage break or overflow, such as used condoms, tampon applicators and greaseballs in the water and on the shore by Domino's Sugar refinery and the Ritz-Carlton waterfront residences.

Flores also reported seeing freshly killed fish in the water.  He said he took some water samples and is having them analyzed for elevated bacteria counts, which could indicates the presence of human or animal waste. The results won't be known until Wednesday at the earliest.

A spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment discounted the odor complaints Monday as likely a continuation of the algae bloom that generated noxious smells and killed fish in the harbor and beyond the previous two weeks.  Today, with more fish reported dying, the spokesman, Jay Apperson, said state investigators plan to recheck the harbor, possibly Wednesday.

Kimberly Burgess, chief of surface water management for the city's Department of Public Works, said her staff is investigating the possible source or sources of the conditions reported by Flores. She wouldn't confirm or rule out a sewage spill or leak.

She said tests taken by her staff found elevated ammonia levels "around the harbor," wihch could indicate sewage. City workers also are collecting water samples to check for elevated bacteria.

But Burgess said elevated ammonia or bacteria readings are not surprising after heavy rains like last Friday's storm, which she said at one point poured rain onto city streets at the rate of one to two inches an hour.  The deluge can wash all manner of waste into the water, she said.

Burgess said her staff is checking the maze-like network of storm drains leading to the harbor for signs of a sewer overflow or leak, but has yet to find any evidence of one or more.

"There’s nothing obvious that we’ve observed so far," she said. 

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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