The Baltimore public works department intentionally pumped more than 1 million gallons of raw sewage into the Baltimore Harbor near the Pier Six Pavilion yesterday afternoon to prevent it from flooding into nearby homes as workers scrambled for two hours to restore power to electrical pumps at the city's Eastern Avenue sewage plant.
City and state officials said the release of the sewage, first into the Jones Falls channel on the plant's western edge, and subsequently into the harbor, posed only minor health risks for people and wildlife.
Pumping station workers blamed a burned-out General Electric relay. The relay's failure, officials believe, shut down Pump No. 3. When Keith Kubuski, the plant's operations supervisor, found that none of the other four pumps worked either, he declared a "code one," the most serious emergency condition.
"This probably hasn't happened for 12 or 13 years," Mr. Kubuski said.
Seven city electricians responded to his call within a half-hour.
The Eastern plant pumps approximately 26 million gallons of sewage a day to a treatment plant just over the city line in eastern Baltimore County. It serves the businesses and residents of East Baltimore. It is one of 17 pumping stations citywide.
At a few minutes before noon yesterday, an alarm went off, and the electrical control panel lights turned off.
Mr. Kubuski's staff initially decided to fill the plant's storage space with as much sewage as it would hold -- about a million gallons. That bought him about 65 minutes.
"At that point, I knew what level will start flooding people's homes -- and I didn't want to get to that point," Mr. Kubuski said.
Public works officials said the sewage would have gone back up people's pipes, flooding their basements and homes; it would also have bubbled up through manhole covers on Eastern Avenue at the western tip of Little Italy.
Instead, at a few minutes past 1 p.m., Mr. Kubuski decided to use a diesel-powered pump to send sewage streaming into the Jones Falls channel nearby, as members of his crew attempted to start the electricity needed to power one of the five massive pumps.
During one of several telephone conversations, he told John Gesswein, a public health engineer with the Maryland Department of the Environment, what he was going to do.
"It was never said directly between us, but it was understood," Mr. Gesswein said yesterday evening. "You've got the choice of the lesser of two evils. They're supposed to advise us that it's happening. In this case, we were talking about an emergency situation. It's their case."
By 2:05 p.m., the No. 3 pump was back on line and sending East Baltimore's sewage across the county line to treatment at the Back River treatment plant.
City and state officials stressed that there will be minimal, if any, risk to people or to wildlife. More than 40 million gallons of water and sewage pour through Jones Falls each day, none from the pumping plant. That was enough to take the sewage and distribute it throughout the harbor, thus limiting the possibility of spreading enough bacteria in the sewage to cause disease, they maintained. An aeration system that infuses oxygen into Jones Falls also helped to ease the risk, officials said.
"There's risks associated with the water. When you add waste water, it increases that risk," Mr. Gesswein said. "It's not a bathing beach. It's not a drinking water supply."
For their part, Mr. Kubuski and his boss, public works director George Balog, intend to replace what they believe is the faulty relay -- essentially a switch that helps to regulate the power of the sewage pump, and therefore how much sewage is being pumped. Mr. Kubuski said he wanted to change to a system of relays wherever there is a single relay now. "I would like not to have one relay capable of knocking out all the pumps," Mr. Kubuski said.