When she took her youngest child to the bus stop yesterday morning, several children asked Lisa K. Cunningham what happened to Piney Run, the creek behind their homes where they play.
"I told them we would have to wait and see," said the Marriottsville resident and mother of four. "We just have an unfortunate situation."
The creek, a popular wading and fishing spot, was polluted when much of 2 million gallons of raw sewage spilled into it after vandals caused a sewer line to overflow between May 7 and Monday.
Cunningham and other residents of Jenna Estates, a group of new homes along Arrington Road, are meeting today with Carroll officials to discuss the spill and other water-related issues at the development.
Cunningham said she was upset that she knew nothing of the spill until she saw signs on several trees as she was walking her dog into the woods Tuesday. She said she would have preferred a personal warning.
"They posted signs, but they never bothered to let anybody know," Cunningham said. "If they are talking about a character virtue program here, they should start with honesty. Legally, they did what they had to, but it is our children who play in this creek."
Cunningham's children and others in the neighborhood caught crawfish Monday in Piney Run, on the day the Carroll officials discovered the spill.
One of her children and several others had intestinal problems, she said, that she fears were a result of wading in the creek.
County health officials advise that anyone who feels ill consult a family physician.
"Our advice always is to work with the family doctor," said Larry L. Leitch, director of the Carroll County Health Department. "But, if you feel well, I would not worry. You are probably OK."
Carroll health workers posted nearly 200 warnings along the waterway, which flows into the Patapsco River.
The development is several miles downstream from Piney Run Reservoir, and the spill will not affect that body of water.
The signs warn against fishing, swimming or wading in the shallow stream.
Residents should not walk along the shoreline where water might splash them, officials said.
"We got the signs up to warn people in and out of the area to stay away from the stream and not to fish in it," said Edwin F. Singer, the county's assistant director of environmental health. "We thought the signs were the best use of staff time."
Stavros Meliotis, who can see the warning signs from his back yard in Forest Hills subdivision across the creek from the Cunninghams, is concerned about fish caught in Piney Run.
"Everybody fishes in this stream," Meliotis said. "There are lots of trout."
Singer said that as long as fish are healthy when caught and then cleaned and cooked, "the likelihood of getting sick from them is small. If people are getting sick, it is more than likely from being exposed to the water, not the fish."
Water contaminated with fecal matter can pose a health threat to humans because it contains viruses and other pathogens carried by human waste, said Singer.
Health officials expected that in a fast-flowing stream the spill would flush through quickly.
"There is no way to sugarcoat a spill like this, but once we get rain, the overall long-term impact is probably negligible," Singer said. "We probably will not see any impact where Piney Run meets the Patapsco River and where it meets the Chesapeake Bay."
Officials said the spill occurred after vandals pried a 100-pound manhole cover off a sewer line, broke it into pieces and then jammed the debris into the sewer line near Slacks Road.
The blockage caused the line to overflow.
Maryland State Police Lt. Terry L. Katz, Westminster barracks commander, said police have no suspects, but they expect to catch the perpetrators, who are presumed to be local juveniles.
State police are preparing a flier for distribution in the neighborhood, he said.
"We're going to work that neighborhood," said Katz. "You don't go a great distance for this type of vandalism."
In the meantime, Cunningham said she would wait for signs of life to return.
"This is catastrophic for the environment and for the wildlife," she said. "There are muskrats, blue herons, fish, snapping turtles and birds. Right now I don't even see dragon flies.
"People need to be aware of the environment. Hopefully, whoever did this will understand the consequences."