Any other day, the 24 million gallons of raw sewage that spilled from a sewage pumping station in Hampden into the Jones Falls last week would be an environmental disaster.
But not when the stream that bisects Baltimore is a raging torrent carrying hundreds of millions of gallons of water to the Inner Harbor.
Crews from the city Health Department were taking water samples along the Jones Falls and the Inner Harbor yesterday, while state Department of the Environment crews were sampling at an oyster bar near the Key Bridge.
Test results won't be completed until tomorrow, said state environmental spokesman John Verrico. But officials expect the spill, which amounted to less than 1 percent of the water flowing down the stream as Hurricane Floyd strafed the state, will have only a "minimal" impact on human health or the ecological health of the harbor, Verrico said.
Water experts at the U.S. Geological Survey agreed. Although large, the spill was quickly diluted by higher-than-normal water flows from the storm's rainfall.
"What it equates to is about 30 cubic feet per second, and the water flow in the Jones Falls was in the thousands of feet per second" during and just after Floyd passed through, said Mike Fisher, a water specialist at the Baltimore office of the Geological Survey.
"It's still a problem, obviously," Fisher said. "Sewage is not a nice thing. But it's such a minuscule part of the total flow that the health impacts or environmental impacts would be minimal."
Fisher said survey staffers aren't sure how much water flowed through the Jones Falls during the storm. The flow was higher than normal, but probably well below the 14,000 cubic feet per second measured near the Lake Roland dam during Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972.
"If this [the sewage spill] had happened during the drought, it would have been a catastrophe," said Ron Cuffie, the city's acting assistant commissioner for environmental health.
The primary and backup sources of power for the huge pumps that operate the Hampden sewage facility run off separate circuits on the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.'s power grid.
But Thursday, first one, then the other circuit went out, shutting down the station and allowing sewage to spill into the Jones Falls.
More than 20 city mechanics and electricians worked round the clock for two days to get the pumps working again. One pump was back in operation by 3: 20 p.m. Saturday, stemming the flow.
"The pumps are so big, you could not have a standby generator," said Kurt Kocher, spokesman for the city Department of Public Works. "It wouldn't work. The plain and simple fact is the hurricane comes along and knocked them both out. The last time a hurricane did that much damage was Agnes in 1972."
Despite predictions that the spill will have minimal environmental and public health effects, the state Department of the Environment is recommending that people avoid fishing in or touching the waters of the Jones Falls and the Inner Harbor until the results of the water tests are complete.
Harmful bacteria could get into a cut or a sore, Verrico said.
"We do recommend that people just be prudent and avoid contact with the water," he said.
Cuffie said it is unusual for people to fish or swim in Jones Falls at this time of year. "So we're lucky in that sense," the official said.
Pub Date: 9/21/99