Pollution monitoring in the Jones Falls
(Photo by Van Smith)

City Paper's recent article about a pollution-tracking project in the Jones Falls that aims to distinguish between human and pet waste found discharging from Baltimore's storm-water system was missing comments from an important intended beneficiary of the project: the city's Department of Public Works (DPW), which is responsible for keeping the city's stormwater and sewage systems completely separate from one another.

DPW spokesman Kurt Kocher had intended to provide comment, as he explained in an email after the article was published: "I apologize," he wrote, "I really thought I had responded but apparently didn't."


Kocher then asked Joan White, the pollution-control analyst supervisor for DPW's Environmental Compliance and Laboratory Services Division, to give her thoughts about the project, which will apply DNA analysis to stormwater run-off coming out of pipes, or outfalls, that drain areas in the Jones Falls Watershed. It's an advanced form of what those in the business call "microbial source tracking," and is aimed at introducing an element of certainty about the degree to which both pet waste and undetected sewage discharges are contaminating Baltimore streams, and therefore the harbor and the Chesapeake Bay.

White calls it "a useful tool," including in "high density residential areas" where "pet owners are not cleaning up after their dogs and we have seen elevated bacteria levels but can't determine the source."

But White contends that even in instances where human pathogens are identified in the stormwater, there will still be uncertainty about their provenance. "The concern is that the sources being identified as human may cause an automatic jump to conclusion of it coming from the public sanitary collection system," when "in reality, the sources may be attributed to releases from private plumbing problems, septic systems, homeless/vagrants, and legacy releases through groundwater infiltration."

City Paper emailed White's comments to the three main people involved in the project: its principal investigator, University of Baltimore science professor Wolf Pecher; University of Maryland Center for Environmental Studies biologist Eric Schott, who will do the DNA analysis; and David Flores, the Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper for Blue Water Baltimore, the local water-quality advocacy group. Flores answered on everyone's behalf:

"We are looking forward to collecting data on human fecal contamination in the stormwater system," Flores wrote, "and agree with Ms. White that, absent evaluation of the resulting data and coordinated source investigations within the stormwater system, we should not jump to conclusions about the source of all observed fecal contamination. One of the objectives of this study, and reasons that EPA chose to fund us, is to work collaboratively with the City to use this technology to locate, verify, and eliminate these sources of fecal contamination.

"We are sensitive to the resource burden that the City's stormwater permit places on existing programs through the permit's broad prohibition on non-stormwater discharges (e.g. human sewage contamination), and, similar to our citizen-powered Outfall Screening Blitz study, we intend for this study to help supplement the City's effort to track and eliminate these sources of harmful pollution to our neighborhood streams, rivers and Harbor. In sum, we are looking forward to a productive collaboration and a cleaner lower Jones Falls as a result."