Sinkhole: What is happening beneath the ground downtown?

Illustration by Charlie Herrick
Illustration by Charlie Herrick

The sinkhole has been there so long it is hard to remember a time before the road caved in and the army of robots took over Centre Street, or what was left of it, in what came to seem like a titanic battle with the very earth itself as engineers in white hats stood and stared into the abyss, backlit, an American flag flapping behind them, nightly checking their progress against decay.

Living just beyond the lip of the sinkhole, my house has shaken me awake more times than I can count; it may have rattled my memory and left me thinking I have always lived in this alien hellscape, but in reality it was only a few months ago that it all came crumbling down.


The road between the monstrous Gallery Towers and the Home Mutual Life building crumbled because of a sewer line failure. The hole in the sewage line gave the sediment somewhere to go, essentially hollowing out the road beneath the surface until that asphalt shell was unsupported and collapsed on the sewage line, breaking it further.

That was April 23 and some of the same businesses that are being suffocated by the sinkhole—sidewalks and streets blocked, signage obscured, pedestrians navigating an obstacle course to make it into shops—were traumatized about a year earlier when people smashed their windows with bricks, rocks, and newspaper boxes, after the Baltimore uprising became violent on April 27.


The sinkholes that opened this spring and summer are estimated to cost $10 million to fix, not counting the loss of business. But that picture is still so narrow. When we look at the contracts with Spiniello, the New Jersey company that is contracted to deal with these issues, as Luke Broadwater did for the Sun, we see that "Spiniello Cos.' contract to make any urgent water main repairs in the city ballooned by $16.1 million over its original $10.5 million bid." The overall upgrade of the sewage system has already cost $700 million.

But there are no tapes to scour and no kids to blame here. Just like we didn't want to see the conditions, the deep segregation and apartheid-level inequality, that led to the smashed windows, we also do not want to see that the physical structure of our city is crumbling as badly as its social one.

Barely a month before the sinkhole on Centre Street opened a vacant collapsed on Thomas Lemmon, a retiree who often sat in his vintage Cadillac listening to Otis Redding. He was sitting in the car on a windy day at the end of March when one N. Payson Street row house just separated from another and fell on him.

The mayor and the governor had just jointly announced a new plan, one that would destroy hundreds of houses like that. They were not quick enough for Mr. Lemmon. Nothing is ever quick enough. And the collapsing vacants are obvious, above ground.


Underground, we've been under a legally binding consent decree about our sewage and water contamination problems since 2002. The EPA and the city of Baltimore entered into the consent decree after the city was found to violate the Clean Water Act by "discharging untreated sewage from its sewage collection system to the Back River, Patapsco River, and the Chesapeake Bay and several smaller water bodies and other waters of the United States." According to that agreement, signed by then-Mayor* Martin O'Malley, the city would eliminate all of the sewage spills and overflows by the beginning of this year.

We blew through the deadline with somewhere around half of the work done. According to the Environmental Integrity Project, last year more than 42 million gallons of raw sewage flowed into the rivers and the Harbor.

"Over the past 14 years, not a lot of actual work on the ground was performed," said David Flores, of Blue Water Baltimore, who also has the title of Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper.

According to the city, it was hard to find out exactly what was going in the tangled century-old system. It had been patched and pieced together to fix problems over the decades—without ever thinking about the whole. Until the city did this extensive survey of the entire sewer system, it did not know how to best tackle the problems, explained Kurt Kocher, a spokesman for Baltimore Department of Public Works.

Though he is often seen as an adversary by the city, Flores, who was recently made a party in the renegotiation of the terms of the consent decree, doesn't dispute this. "Obviously it is not a problem that can be fixed overnight," he says. "The challenge of repairing any underground infrastructure is substantial and in this case especially when you have such an enormous network of hundreds and hundreds of miles of underground pipes, which a lot of it is pushing 100 years old and has never seen preventative maintenance done proactively by the city to maintain infrastructure and a decent proportion of it has met the end of its useful lifetime." This poses problems. "Unfortunately we see that manifest through catastrophic drinking water line breaks that cause the pressurized water to devour roads and send sediment into the waterways. And then we see this through sewer line breaks and sewer overflows which obviously pollute not only our waterways but people's homes."

This massive problem, which Flores says is in the "triage stage," is creeping along underneath us. "It's like a time bomb," Baltimore's public works director, Rudy Chow, told NPR's Marketplace last year. "This old infrastructure, we know it's going to fail. The question is where and when."

The answer to that question, in April, was Centre Street.

To look at the causes of these problems, we have to go all the way back to when Baltimore really was shit city.

Before the 1904 fire that burned much of downtown, the city didn't have a sewage system to speak of and our waste rushed and trickled and sloshed into the Jones Falls and ultimately into the Harbor. Before that, the city's government was paralyzed, unable to act on the divisive issue. Even repairing a pipe is a massive disruption. But when they were proposing an entire sewer system, everyone was complaining about everything.

The city appointed a sewage commissioner in 1859, a couple of years after a British doctor named John Snow discovered that London's 1854 cholera outbreak came from a private cesspool, much like those in Baltimore, where night soil men emptied them each night. It was a big industry and it lobbied hard against the sewer. Baltimore didn't have a big cholera problem, but the cesspools were a definite public health concern, as was typhoid as the sewers were being built. But according to Alicia Puglionesi's excellent history of the sewer system in Atlas Obscura, social contagion was feared as much as pathogens. "Before 1904, open-air gutters flowed in one direction from the wealthy northern suburbs to the poor neighborhoods around the harbor. New, enclosed sewer mains enabled two-way traffic: waste flowed down, but gases rose up, or so the alarmists imagined. They insisted that germs from the slums would penetrate the water-closets of the elite."

A page from the 1914 book "The Star-Spangled Centennial" celebrating "the Great drains Baltimore is now Building," says "The system will be the finest in the world." A hundred years later, these waterworks are in major need of repair.
A page from the 1914 book "The Star-Spangled Centennial" celebrating "the Great drains Baltimore is now Building," says "The system will be the finest in the world." A hundred years later, these waterworks are in major need of repair. (Courtesy/Archive.com)

Baltimore was the last major city in the U.S. to build a true sewage system and people from other cities reacted with horror to the "2,000 horsepower smell" as boats pulled into the Harbor. Finally, the fire of 1904 gave the mayor a chance to move forward with the sewer.

With the B&O railroad and the harbor, Baltimore was a boomtown and many saw opportunity in the disaster. The mayor, Robert McClane, had won the election a few months earlier by a small margin. He was in his mid-thirties and had secretly eloped with a beautiful young woman. Then someone dropped a cigar or cigarette into the basement of a dry goods store and within a day 80 blocks had burned. The mayor took to the front lines and tried to stop the fire by dynamiting five buildings in its path. He blew the shit up—at Redwood and Charles—with hundreds of pounds of dynamite. But it didn't stop the fire and probably helped it spread as the broken windows of nearby buildings created a wind tunnel.


But, many said, after the fire was finally extinguished, the city was in a perfect position to break ground on the new sewer system. McClane made it happen, but he himself would never sit on a Baltimore toilet to deliver his waste to the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant, which opened in 1911, because, according to the coroner's report, he shot himself in the head in the middle of the night shortly after breaking ground on the sewage system. It shocked the city. Some say he was murdered.


But before his death, he had broken through the civic constipation that kept Baltimore from undertaking such a massive but essential undertaking. But in some ways things were easier then. Much of downtown would have to be rebuilt anyway and there were no gas pipes, electric lines, fiber optics, and the like already underground to be navigated around.

Residents still feared contamination once the pipes were laid. "Public anxiety about sewer-borne contagion did not disappear with the new system," Puglionesi wrote. "In fact, it created a booming market for dubious germ-proofing products, such as elaborate multi-chambered plumbing traps and carbolic-acid sprays."

Even today, so many of the weird toxic chemicals that McKay Jenkins writes so terrifyingly about in "ContamiNation," his book about how we poison ourselves with our toxic "cleaning" materials, are born of a fear of our sewers. And for the thousands of people who annually have sewage backup into the basements, this is a legitimate fear. There have been 7,500 since last February according to the Department of Public Works.

In 2014, Angela Wright, a West Baltimore woman, was blown off her toilet, thrown across the room, and covered in feces when a sewage line was being swept. She sued Spiniello and the Mayor last March for nearly $250,000 claiming a "loss of enjoyment of her usual pursuits and pastimes."

But despite these problems, what was ultimately completed in 1911 was a marvel of engineering, with over 1,000 miles of pipe connected throughout the city. Many, like the pipe that broke at Centre Street, were large enough for a person to walk into. In a promotional picture, the mayor and various public dignitaries drove out of the pipes in automobiles.

But once the ground covered the pipes, we forgot about them. We who have grown up with a functioning sewer system expect to be able to push a button and not have to think again about the waste that is whisked away.

And we don't, except every so often when problems bubble and then burst to the surface.

Baltimore has a rich history of sinkholes: As long ago as Jan. 20, 1914, A Cave-in over an old city sewer on Chester Street just north of Monument Street forced the street to be cordoned off.
Baltimore has a rich history of sinkholes: As long ago as Jan. 20, 1914, A Cave-in over an old city sewer on Chester Street just north of Monument Street forced the street to be cordoned off. (Courtesy/Maryland Historical Society)

"In 1997 there was a collapse at Park and Franklin and it essentially took everything into the hole with it," Kocher says. "It was that same sewer line, the electric line, the gas line, everything went down to the hole, the spark from the electric lines set the gas lines on fire so you had this sort of raging inferno in the middle of the street, took down street lights and one or two buildings had to be condemned as well."

According to Kocher, fire department divers dove straight into the pipes to try to fix the leaks.

Kocher says that catastrophe marked the beginning of a series of repairs on the nearby sewers that continues today.

"You were dealing with, at that time, 80-plus year old sewer lines," he says. "So that section of the sewer line was cleaned and lined and the intersection was rebuilt. The other infrastructure was back in place so that area returned to normal." But the aging sewer lines continued to fail. "A few years ago there was a further sinking hole on Park Avenue that took down part of the street for a while, while another section of that sewer line was addressed. So basically you have a continuous situation of a very old over 100-year-old sewer line that runs through there. It's between 6 and 6 1/2 feet, maybe a little larger than that, 80 inches, that runs across Centre Street, Park Avenue, Mulberry, Saratoga."

Kocher, a good humored gray-haired man with the hunched shoulders of someone accustomed to being around people shorter than him, couldn't tell me how many people's shit flows through Park and Centre, but he could confirm that area is "a collection point for a lot of smaller lines that flow into it. This is a main tunnel that collects sewage from a large geographic area."

In 2012, a massive sinkhole opened up on the East side. It was, according to Kocher, "the biggest one of these I've seen." It was 10 feet long and 20 feet deep.

These sinkholes are not anomalies. They are the norm. Not just in Baltimore, but throughout the country, we have failed to invest in our infrastructure and now, like a middle aged dude who suddenly sobers up and realizes he is fat and horrendously unhealthy, we are shocked that we let it get this bad.

But fixing the problem is not impossible. People are swimming in the Charles River in Boston because public policy made the environment and public health a priority. Atlanta, too, made vast improvements in its position as the result of a 1998 consent decree.

When the Centre Street sinkhole first opened, no one really knew what was happening. Strange rumors circulated the neighborhood. The odiferous sense of dread and paranoia was palpable. As more streets around us closed, neighbors began to wonder if it was really a lot worse than the city was letting on.

"Is the whole downtown just going to cave in?" a neighbor asked.

"We'll have beachfront property by the time it's done," another said.

Overground sewer pipes at Paca and Franklin streets
Overground sewer pipes at Paca and Franklin streets (J.M. Giordano)

Each day, it seemed, a new road closed, a new construction site opened.

It also coincided with a number of other nearby projects, such as the construction of luxury apartments at 500 Park and numerous BGE sites throughout the city. But the uncertainty was wearing, exhausting. To step outside was to be assaulted by a barrage of sounds and smells—none of them good. But where there was a sensory overload, there was very little knowledge. It was all noise and no signal.

Then someone taped a notice to our door informing us that 24-hour work would shortly begin. It was spring, we did not have AC and our windows were open all the time.

The earth shook me awake. I glanced at the clock. It was 6 a.m. On a Saturday. I was hungover and buried my head under the pillow.


"Six in the fucking morning," I muttered. "I can't take it."

"Why is the loudest work always when we're sleeping?" my wife said through her fractured sleep.

I got up to piss in my toilet. The room shook. I flushed and somewhere outside my window, the remnants of the beer I drank the night before flowed through the thick plastic above-ground pipes. When I walked outside on the rare occasions the machines were not running, I could hear the sewage moving through them.

A network of these large black pipes routed the sewage around the break, above ground in pipes so big the city had to build ramps for pedestrians to climb over them, before pouring it underground again on the northwest corner of Cathedral and Centre. When it came to smells, a lot depended on the wind.

A woman crosses sewage pipes--"the poop promenade," as neighbors call it-- at Franklin and Eutaw streets.
A woman crosses sewage pipes--"the poop promenade," as neighbors call it-- at Franklin and Eutaw streets. (J.M. Giordano)

These pipes are an example of bypass pumping. Here's what Spiniello's corporate site says about it:

"Spiniello has decades of experience in high volume flow in both residential water and sewage bypass. Our team manages every aspect of bypass pumping, including engineering, installation, pressure testing and operations. We also have all of the equipment needed to set up high-quality bypass pumping systems, including submersible pumps, dry-priming pumps, pipes, fittings and all other necessary equipment."

The equipment truly was astounding—an arsenal of specialized machines whose names I could not even guess.

Sometimes it was like metal dinosaurs at war as a crane filled its carriage with dirt in order to pound thick sheets of metal down into the ground to stabilize the walls of the road.

Bright spotlights flooded the scene at night. In the daytime, the work seemed to consist of one guy looking in the hole and five guys looking at him looking. But at night dozens of trucks reversed all at the same time, it seemed, as their machines shook the earth. And our apartment.

The business owners and bartenders of the neighborhood complained. There was nowhere to park. People had to walk over sewage pipes to come inside the Mount Vernon Marketplace. It was an obstacle course. In front of Trinacria's cafe, they built a wooden boardwalk to step over the pipes. Neighbors called it "the boardwalk" or "the poop promenade" and joked about selling sno balls and cotton candy on either side of it. But in reality, business was suffering.

Trinacria closed for renovations while waiting out the construction.

The juxtapositions were temporally disorienting. Sometimes we moved through the space age, all the equipment high-tech and super modern. Other times, we lived in the medieval age.

When they cleaned the pipes, we walked through a Hieronymus Bosch-scape—a medieval-looking cauldron of molten black shit swung through the air at the edge of a crane.

That's when the odor was the worst.

Early morning at the sinkhole at Mulberry and Paca streets
Early morning at the sinkhole at Mulberry and Paca streets (J.M. Giordano)

One night in late June, the sounds of hammers on metal broke in through the window like bricks. I looked outside and several men in hardhats were building what appeared to be a stage, like for a rock band at a fair, except on the back of a truck. Like they couldn't back the trailer of a truck into the space so they were building it there in the middle of the night in the bright spotlight, occasionally punctuated by frying tails of sparks falling from a man welding metal.

The suspicions grew. Why were they always doing all the work at night? What were they trying to hide? What was going on under the earth? Were the conspiracy theorists right and this was secretly FEMA building a prison camp for us? Something was up.

By morning, the truck-bed stage had been built. Then, upon it they stacked dozens of thick white sheets of some kind of fiberglass and resin that would be shot into the old pipes and pumped with high pressure steam that would flip it inside out, cause the resin to melt and later harden around the new form. Pipes.

"Installing CIPP lining solutions is a relatively simple process. Our team inserts a resin-impregnated liner within the host pipe, inverts the liner and then heat-cures it to form the same rigid shape as the original pipe."

This copy from Spiniello's site makes the process sound almost artisanal—"our heat-cured shit pipes…"—but it was rather amazing to see. After building the truck-bed stage, workers covered it with a tarp tent to inject the fiberglass sheets into the old pipes, effectively turning them into molds. There are 4,000 miles of pipe in the city that need to be replaced like this.

Peabody Court, the hotel up the street from the sinkhole, closed around the same time. You could wander through it now buying the refuse furnishings left behind from International Content Liquidation.

International Content Liquidation and Spiniello are emblems of our economy. Getting rid of shit. You can't avoid them. When it all goes bust, it is liquidated.

If you have shitty infrastructure, then you certainly haven't invested in all of these bizarre and hyper specialized machines used to repair and rebuild it. Even to most city planners and officials, the world beneath the city is alien, a noxious but necessary hellscape, maintained for the civic health, but best forgotten about.

But Spiniello thinks about it all the time. If corporations are people, Spiniello literally has shit for brains. And emergencies like this keep the money flowing in—because the company knows it is essential for the sewage to flow out. It has us by the cornhole.

Spiniello is based in New Jersey, but I talked to workers from all around the country (I actually didn't talk to any from Baltimore, though there must have been a few).

Early stages of work at the Mulberry street sinkhole
Early stages of work at the Mulberry street sinkhole (J.M. Giordano)

A small village grew beside our house. DPW inspectors would sit on our front stoop, away from the site, unwittingly flooding us with more unnecessary noise. Spiniello workers were always there, 24 hours a day. On at least one occasion, they catcalled a woman, but after DPW was informed, it didn't happen again (that I know of).

This isolated village within our city changed the flow of the city itself. One evening I was sitting outside and saw a guy walking on the sidewalk beside the sinkhole. There was a fence separating him and the sinkhole and a wall on the other side. When a group of kids approached with some malice, there was nothing he could really do. One smacked him in the face. The kids ran off and did not take anything and the dude did not chase them. But it could have been a cage match.

Around the same time they began to form the new pipes at Centre Street, another, even bigger sinkhole opened up on Mulberry Street, between Paca and Greene. Stretching across Mulberry from sidewalk to sidewalk, the sinkhole is about 30 feet deep.

It was July 4th. The city was mayhem. Rapper Lor Scoota was just one of the mainly young black men who had recently been murdered. The trials of the officers in the death of Freddie Gray wore on, as did the Department of Justice investigation into the police department. The air was fetid. The Democratic and Republican conventions were approaching. Donald Trump was everywhere. The world was already hellish enough.


But some time before this, who knows when, a four-foot hole opened up in an 80-inch brick and mortar pipe and was sucking in the earth between the concrete surface of the road and the pipe.

"When there is a hole there it just starts taking the soil. That's how a sinkhole happens," Wazir Qadri, a supervising engineer for DPW said when I met him and a few others on the scene recently. "It's a big sewer there, a six-foot sewer. When you're taking all the dirt, you're taking the support and it breaks the leak, breaks the water main and it starts leaking."

"Everything was going down. It had a very nice conduit in a six-foot sewer," added Madeleine Driscoll, who works in DPW's Office of Asset Management, which assesses "the overall risk" in the system through the consent decree projects.

Driscoll said that the conditions were the same at the Centre Street and Mulberry sinkholes. "It's the same sewer, it's the same age, you had the same conditions," she said. Still, she said, "nobody could predict would happened here."

Because of the relative impermeability of the concrete surface, water did not show and the erosion went undetected until the center of the street finally collapsed.

As the hole grew, a DPW employee—who has not been identified—was sucked in, the earth collapsing beneath his feet.

Another employee, who said he was there, told me about as I walked my dog the next night. He didn't know I was a reporter working on the sinkhole. In fact, neither did I. But it was late and we were the only two people on the street and we started talking. He told me that his colleague was now safe and recovering but that he easily could have died as the earth continued to cave in around him.

At that moment, as my dog pulled toward the sulfurous odor leaking from the pipes, my view on the entire situation changed. The sinkhole went from an earthshaking annoyance next door to a heroic attempt to wrest some degree of order from the chaos that is always engulfing us. What better metonym for that chaos than shit.

Even demigods struggle with it.

Out of the 12 labors of Herakles, cleaning the shit from the stables of King Augeus was the only one that was declared a failure. Augeus had more cattle than anyone and Herakles said he could get rid of all the shit in a single day if he could have half the cattle. He dug trenches and diverted the river, cleaning the stables but polluting the environment. As with our consent decree, the whole thing had to be adjudicated by a judge and Herakles was paid but banished from the land. And it didn't count as one of the 12 labors he had to do.

Shit is always its own underworld.

Only days after the earth gave away and sucked in the DPW worker on July 11, a woman fell through a manhole and into hell. She was apparently at an after-hours club on W. Lexington, just blocks from the sinkhole. According to official reports, the woman moved one of those big bong-looking things that spout the steam above the street. There is a horrifying video of people around the hole, trying to get her while waiting for emergency crews to arrive. She was scalded to death.

What is happening underground, I wondered again, shaken with the horror of this unnecessary death. Police spokespeople still have not responded to requests for more information on what happened to her. She was swallowed by the earth, and then erased by our bureaucracy.

According to DPW, the hole she fell into was managed by a company named Veolia that runs a vast system of steam throughout the city in order to heat and even cool some buildings downtown. Veolia also runs the Charm City Circulator and tried to privatize the city's water in 2014. So it was not the same set of pipes as the sewage system, but yet another tragedy, three days after and three blocks away from the Mulberry sinkhole, reinforcing the idea that hell itself is located just barely beneath Baltimore's streets.

Another day, during a torrential downpour, the Centre Street sinkhole caused Park Avenue to flood and pushed a manhole cover up out of place. A woman was walking, hunched under an umbrella in the rain. People in the Mount Vernon Market saw her coming toward the hole and started yelling, but we were inside. A few of us moved toward the door just as she saw it and stepped to the side.

With each of these big storms, sewage overflowed into the rivers. Here, where construction workers used white powdered stone to pack the road, a flood roared around the hole and Centre Street became a white river.

When I meet with Driscoll, Qadri, Kocher, and a project manager named Darren Hanson at the end of August, they aren't even working on the Mulberry Street sinkhole yet —it has been stabilized, but that is it—and the sinkhole was just cordoned off, blocking another major eastward passage through the city. That's because, before they start working on it, they have to build a bypass route. It's way more complicated than the raised pipes that snake through the rest of the neighborhood because the bypass has to cross Howard Street, where it can't be above ground because of the light rail. So Franklin, the major westbound conduit of cars, is closed while the city/Spiniello weaves bypass pipes beneath the light rail tracks—and above the Howard Street tunnel, which is below it. But that is taking weeks to finish and traffic downtown is infinitely snarled with Centre, Franklin, and Mulberry closed. That sinkhole is projected to cost between $6 and $7 million. The city estimates that Franklin and Center will both be reopened in October, but the Mulberry Street sinkhole will take the rest of the year to repair.

At the same time they are explaining all of this to me and a WYPR reporter at the Mulberry Street sinkhole on that steaming August morning, the Board of Estimates is approving a rate hike of 9.4 percent a year over the next three years—in what will end up as a 33 percent increase in city residents' water bills.

People are pissed about it, especially since the city has traditionally let corporations off the hook for millions in back water bills—most recently the $1.5 million overdue water bill by the owners of what used to be the Sparrows Point mill—while shutting off water to the indigent and elderly.

But the city says it has to raise rates in order to meet the EPA consent decree—and protect the city's future. Keeping the sewer system from backing up and pouring raw sewage into the Jones Falls and the Harbor requires not only the fixing of emergency situations such as the sinkholes, but an overhaul of the entire system, which was designed to have such overflow mechanisms.


"One flaw in the system, which wasn't a flaw, at all was the creation of these outfalls or overflow releases when the sewer system became inundated with rain water," Kocher says. "It's not manually done; it automatically happens and these overflows would send the water shooting into the streams because that was state of the art of the time."

The other option, Kocher says, is "into the streets, the basements, and overflowing at the sewage treatment plant so it would be all over the place."

In order to fully understand my sinkhole, I needed to follow my shit to Back River.

"During the early twentieth century, Essex was a hotspot for recreational activities, such as drinking, gambling, and prostitution. The area attracted not only working class Baltimoreans, but also local and state politicians," Christian Mann, then a law student at UMD, wrote in 2009. He was providing background in the case of Taylor v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, in which a woman named Nettie Taylor sued the city over the loss of business at her tavern and brothel as a result of the odors wafting up from the millions of gallons of sewage that flowed into the Back River Waste Water Treatment plant. Even though she won the first suit, her establishment was ultimately no match for the odor and closed. According to Kocher, locating the Back River plant in Essex in 1911 also served as a sort of vice control measure.

Overview of the back river waste water treatment plant
Overview of the back river waste water treatment plant (J.M. Giordano)

In 1940 the city opened the Patapsco Wastewater Treatment Plant, second plant, in Fairfield, on the Baybrook peninsula across the water, where, in one of the city's worst acts of environmental racism, the largely African-American residents of Fairfield lived with the unpleasant aspects of the wastewater treatment plant—while not getting hooked up to that sewage line themselves until the 1970s.

But back at Back River, there was that hydrological flaw which has contributed to the pollution and backflow—to the tune of 335 million gallons of storm water mixed with raw sewage flowing into the Jones Falls during heavy rains over the last five years, according to the Environmental Integrity Project, which also faults the city for not informing the public and the press about these outflows, as required by the law.

When I arrived at the site in August for a tour, I met with Kocher and Michael Gallagher, the division chief of the wastewater facilities division. Gallagher had spent his life working on the mechanics of waste and this was his domain. There was a scale model of the entire site, made shortly after 9/11, and he explained the process. He pointed out the various settling ponds and the pools where the sewage is oxygenated and where it is not.

But the problem, he pointed out, was at the very entry to the site, the hydrological flaw that Kocher had told me about before.

"The main flow comes in right along this treeline here," Gallagher said, pointing to the model. "The Headworks project, which I'm sure you heard about, is going to be right here and be an influent pumping station, which is going to lower the hydraulic restriction coming in the plant, allow a free discharge from the city and solve a lot of their backup overflow."

In other words, Gallagher said, "what they're going to do is dig a big well so it flows easily so in big storms it doesn't back up and cause overflow."

The city is also building what Gallagher described as "36-million-gallon storage tanks" which are "going to be 30 feet in the air."

"I just noticed something," Kocher said, looking down at the model. "I never noticed this little airplane here before. I think that's the one you were reporting on."

He was talking about the Cessna that the police used, with Persistent Surveillance Systems, to film 32-mile swaths of the city over the last eight months. But he was pointing to a small airplane stuck to the glass dome around the 2001 scale model of the facility. Thinking about the vantage point of the aerial footage made me take an even larger birds eye view and try to imagine all the toilets from all over the city and the county with all of their interlocking pipes taking up the entire room around this scale model, flowing into to here, wondering how far would the scale model would stretch, how vast would be the system of pipes. Here was the geometrical pattern that you get in serious psychedelic situations; it was the Epcot of evacuation and all about the future. The planners are on the cutting edge of cutting the cheese. And it is not cheap.

"The bids came in at $441 million," Gallagher said. "The city and county really budgeted $350 million, so we're doing this project—it's called CMAR, Construction Management at Risk, it's a joint venture cooperation between the city, the designers and the contractor to cut the project to $350 million dollars."

As it stands today, the city and county split the costs of running the waste facility, which is on county land. Because the Patapsco site takes inflow from several of the surrounding counties, the city, Gallagher said, only pays 40 percent of the cost of running that site.

Filtration systems at the Back River Waste Water treatment plant
Filtration systems at the Back River Waste Water treatment plant (J.M. Giordano)

Using the scale model, Gallagher explained what we would see as we drove around the site.

"Once the flow comes through here, that's a screen building," Gallagher said, pointing to a small replica of the building where screens catch "any non-dissolved things people float: rubbers, condoms, rags, tires, needle containers, you know, whatever anybody flushes down their toilet."

After the screen building shit flows into the grit chambers that filter the inflow with sand. Eleven settling tanks, which Gallagher described as giant mud puddles, allow sediment to sink and further separate liquids and solids. After that the waste moves on to secondary clarifiers.

We rode around looking at all of this, occasionally getting out of the car to poke our heads into one structure or another. The amount of activity at the site is astounding. An arts writer would call it "vibrant," with cranes optically overlapping in every direction and trucks crisscrossing the fecal dust.

But even without the construction, the site was somehow gorgeous, an intense contrast of gleaming machinery and the sludgy junk that is humanity's most inconvenient eventuality. It was like the amazement I felt looking at the specialized machinery at the sinkhole but amplified. The mechanics of the whole operation is crazy—Willie Wonka's Chocolate Factory, I thought for a moment, with shit instead of chocolate.

According to the EPA, "a typical family of four generates up to 400 gallons of wastewater per day." A hundred gallons per person. But after all of the treatment at Back River, the waste is reduced to about a pound of sludge. So that's more than 62 million gallons that pass through here from Baltimore. Coming out as more than a ton of sludge, every day.


At this point in the process, after the secondary clarifiers, we were at the digesters, which use bacteria to eat our waste. We were standing on a metal walkway—the kind they are always having sword fights on in movies—over a giant S-shaped vat of bubbling liquid shit. Gallagher pointed off into the distance.

"In the digesters, we have anaerobic bacteria, which is bacteria with no air," he said. "They break down the solids and they produce methane gas. So that's sort of like your intestines."

Beneath my feet, bubbles were moving outward in every direction, causing the settling shit to look like fizzing cola. The aerobic bacteria, which need the air, got it via five, 1500 horsepower blowers in the muck.

"The bacteria needs two things to live. They need food and they need air. We're giving them the air. The food is the crap in the wastewater," Gallagher said. "So they're eating that and breaking it down. The neat part is for the denitrification, to get rid of the nitrogen in the water. We stop giving them air during a section. So they need air and what they do is they strip one of the oxygen particles off the nitrogen, so it goes from NO2, which is a liquid nitrogen, they take one of them because we aren't giving them air, it turns to NO, which is gas, and is released into the atmosphere."

A maze of filtration pipes at the waste water treatment plant
A maze of filtration pipes at the waste water treatment plant (J.M. Giordano)

Liquid nitrogen is one of the worst pollutants in the Bay because it grows algae, which blocks sunlight from aqueous plants and animals.

The sludge is now filtered through 11 inches of sand before it gets a dose of high strength bleach to kill pathogens. "You can't put a chlorine residual into the river so we dechlorinate it with sodium bisulfide," Gallagher said, noting that they have to test for chlorine residue at the end of every single shift because "it will kill the fish and the crabs, everything in the water."

Finally, we walked out to bunch of steps where the water flows down to be mixed with dissolved oxygen before going into the 1100-foot outflow that will send it out into the river, cleaner Gallagher said, than the water already flowing.

"The water goes out and the second half of it has, if you want to call windows, in the side so instead of going out and stirring everything up it goes out and dissipates slowly into the river," he said.

Watching the water rush down the concrete steps and looking at the river gleaming in the sun beyond the trees, I thought of something Gallagher had said earlier, when he compared the process to our own digestive track. It made me think of Plato's claim that the government of a city is analogous to the soul of a person. And now, Gallagher was saying, its wastewater treatment plant is its gut.

He ladled up some of the water to show how clear it was, how clean. Cranes reached up in the sky. Trucks drove by and men in orange shirts and hard hats scurried about in the distance. I liked the comparison, thinking of this facility as a large mega human or meta human intestine. But later it struck me that if the analogy holds, the backflow and leaks are like shitting your pants, regularly. Or in the public pool. That's what the consent decree essentially said: Yo, it doesn't matter if it's just a little shart, you can't walk around like that, even if you are old and incontinent. Fix it, now. But they've just extended "now" to 2030.

Gallagher told me a story about an employee who was supposed to lift the first screen when it got clogged during a heavy flow so there wouldn't be a backup. He didn't. Gallagher had to explain what happened to city officials.

I had to resist saying "I bet you were in deep shit."

That got me thinking of all the ways that we use shit as a metaphor—shitty, shithead, down the crapper, verbal diarrhea, fecund. We give a shit, which is not the opposite of taking a shit. If something is good—"that's the shit!" If it is unbelievable it is "a crock of shit."

Clear water at the end of the filtration process
Clear water at the end of the filtration process (J.M. Giordano)

Sometimes those figurative uses become literal. That's why the gag in "Airplane" where a piece of shit actually hits a fan is funny. Or Chong saying, "that's good shit," after he followed around his weed-eating dog to reclaim his stash from its refuse. Figurative shit becomes literal and makes us laugh because we use the word without actually meaning the stuff that comes out of our butts.

And that's what coming out here makes you see. We are all ejecting gross poisonous stuff from our assholes every day. Shitting is that thing that brings us together because in doing it we are all at our most undignified and our most animal—and so, somehow, our most holy.

"The problem with the world is that no one knows how to shit anymore," said Ambrosio Molinos, the heroic champion of the old slow values of Castilian village life in Michael Paterniti's book "The Telling Room."

Molinos went on to describe the glories of shitting on a mountain over his village, seeing his whole life down below, in the moment of this most honest act. "It's as if you're seeing God in this moment."

Standing over that vat where the bacteria were snatching oxygen molecules from the liquid nitrogen in our waste and converting it to a harmless gas, it was almost as if I was seeing God.

For most of Earth's history, the planet was dominated by anaerobic bacteria, the kind that doesn't need oxygen. In fact, oxygen was the byproduct—the shit—that the anaerobic bacteria produced. They couldn't manage their waste and eventually they shit so much oxygen that they died and aerobic bacteria evolved—along with our world.

That is a fable for a world where we are ever more likely to drown in our own shit, I thought as I followed Gallagher back into the office buildings. "You might want to wash your hands," he said. "I wash mine many times every day."

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated Martin O'Malley was governor at the time he signed a consent decree with the EPA. City Paper regrets the error.