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Sewage spilled in July mishap

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Baltimore city workers, who this month allowed more than 10 million gallons of sewage to spill into a bay tributary, dumped nearly 4.4 million gallons of raw sewage into the Jones Falls in July - another serious water pollution incident that city officials failed to report to the public.

The Jones Falls spill July 26 stemmed from a blocked underground sewer pipeline in East Baltimore, according to city officials. The obstruction initially caused about 600,000 gallons of raw sewage to overflow into the street and into storm drains at Broadway and Oliver Street.

Kurt Kocher, spokesman for the city's Department of Public Works, said officials decided to divert the sewage into the Jones Falls from a pumping station in Hampden rather than let it continue to spill into residential streets.

In the incident this month, a broken valve at a city pumping station caused 10.3 million gallons of sewage to spill into Colgate Creek, a Chesapeake Bay tributary that flows through an industrial area of Southeast Baltimore.

That discharge - not reported to health authorities or the public for three days - prompted a belated posting of signs along the stream last week warning against fishing or wading in the polluted water.

The discharges to Colgate Creek and to Jones Falls are two of the biggest of at least 20 sewage leaks and spills, most of them minor, in the city this year, according to reports supplied by city and state officials. Only a handful of those were reported to the Maryland Department of the Environment, the agency charged with safeguarding the state's water ways.

The Colgate Creek spill prompted city and state officials to re-examine their policies on notifying the public about sewage spills.

State officials, who are investigating whether the Colgate Creek spill violated pollution laws, say they are also concerned about the city's failure to report the Jones Falls sewer overflow promptly.

"That's something we need to look into," said David H. Lyons, MDE's chief of water pollution compliance.

Environmental activists said they were distressed but not surprised to learn that there had been other unannounced sewage spills in Baltimore this year.

"It sounds like it's even more serious than we had imagined," said Theresa Pierno, Maryland director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. The Annapolis-based environmental group has called for a state crackdown on sewage spills.

There was no public announcement about the Jones Falls spill, nor did public works officials contact the city Health Department, which has responsibility for determining whether people should be warned not to go in or near a contaminated stream.

"It wasn't brought to people's attention the way it could have been," Kocher said. He contended that a city worker did notify the state environmental agency by telephone about the spill as soon as it happened.

But MDE officials say they have no record of being called about the Jones Falls spill. They say their only notification from the city came in a letter received July 31, a week after the overflows began.

"I wasn't aware of the magnitude of it," said MDE's Lyons, until he reviewed the city's letter last week in response to questions by The Sun about previous sewage spills in Baltimore.

Members of the Jones Falls Watershed Association, which is attempting to restore the neglected and degraded urban stream, say they also were unaware of any major spills since last year's' storm-related power failure that dumped 24 million gallons of sewage into the waterway.

Kocher said signs were posted along the Jones Falls after last September's storm-related spill, warning that the water might be polluted. Those signs should still be there, he said.

But Guy Hollyday, who monitors the Jones Falls for sewage spills, said he has seen only one warning sign. He said he was unaware of the July discharge.

Sun staff writer M. Dion Thompson contributed to this article.

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