City public works crews diverted more than 1.6 million gallons of raw sewage into the Jones Falls yesterday, as runoff from heavy rains overwhelmed an East Baltimore sewer line under repair.
The incident - the fourth major spill in the city since July - began at about 8:15 a.m. when the normal morning surge of water use, plus the runoff, taxed the sewer line at North Broadway and East Oliver Street, officials said. The spill ended at 4:30 p.m., they said.
George L. Winfield, Department of Public Works director, said the city has only two options when faced with situations such as what occurred: Let the sewage back up into homes, or divert it into local waterways. "When we make this decision, it's, 'Do we impact the citizens directly and cause property damage and a health risk, or do we discharge it into a body of water?' " he said.
Kim Coble, a senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said Baltimore must look beyond its available options.
"This is unacceptable," she said. "We've had at least 20 million gallons of raw sewage go into our waterways, and that's just the ones we know about."
DPW spokesman Kurt Kocher said the Jones Falls, which ends at the Inner Harbor, was running at 40 times its normal flow yesterday morning. During a four-hour period, 136 million gallons flowed down the falls, as the city dumped an additional 1 million gallons of raw sewage into the water, he said.
The spill from the sewer line began Monday evening when 5,000 to 10,000 gallons of raw sewage overflowed onto Broadway, as 2 1/2 inches of rain fell on the Baltimore area, officials said, forcing the sewage into storm drains.
Department of Public Works crews managed the spill through the night by reducing the flow through the line, but yesterday morning, the combination of storm runoff and regular morning use of the line forced the diversion, officials said.
Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, the city health commissioner, said the city has posted warning signs along the Jones Falls and will put up seven to 10 more by Friday.
"The city has a real aging infrastructure that clearly needs to be renovated," Beilenson said. "We're working on it slowly but surely, but it needs to be stepped up."
Two weeks ago, 10 million gallons of raw sewage poured into Colgate Creek in southeast Baltimore after a 45-year-old valve broke at the Dundalk pumping station.
On two days in July, 4.4 million gallons of untreated sewage was sent into the Jones Falls because of a blockage in the sewer line at the Broadway site. More than 600,000 gallons of sewage spilled onto Broadway before city crews diverted the flow into the Jones Falls.
Work on replacing the 36-inch sewer line that runs under Broadway began in June and should be finished in November, said Winfield.
When Baltimore's system works properly, flushed toilets in the city and the suburbs send 240 million gallons of waste water through 3,100 miles of pipes, hidden under city streets and tucked away along stream banks, officials said.
City officials acknowledge there have been at least 20 spills or leaks - most of them minor - this year.