BALTIMORE IS fortunate that last week's huge sewage spill into Herring Run occurred during the winter of our discontent, when few pedestrians would be strolling in the adjacent park. About a third of the city's 3,100 miles of aged sewer lines run through parkland, which means dangerous bacteria that can cause such diseases as gastroenteritis and dysentery are concentrated where people congregate for pleasure and recreation.
Such spills happen with appalling regularity.
This latest one of 35 million gallons (or more - the overflow was reported last Monday but probably started the previous Saturday) was one of the worst spills in recent years. Picture an aquarium the length and width of Ravens Stadium filled to the depth of a skyscraper.
Reports of sewage leaks occur about every other day, and the U.S. Department of Justice, in court papers charging the city with violating the federal Clean Water Act, estimated Baltimore illegally discharged 100 million gallons of sewage in 900 overflows over six years. Some of that stuff, of course, ends up in streams where kids play and pets drink, and those streams end up in the Chesapeake Bay.
The problem is that the city's sewer system was built roughly a century ago to last 50 years. Seventy percent of the pipes are now more than 50 years old and under extreme stress. The city lacks the money and manpower for proper maintenance and repair.
The Herring Run spill happened almost a year after the city agreed to a consent order requiring it to make more than $900 million in repairs over 14 years (and pay a $600,000 fine). Overflows would be eliminated in the first five years at a cost of $250 million. Ideally, state and federal governments should share in the cost, since the Chesapeake Bay is a shared resource, and a polluted Chesapeake is a state and national problem. But though these governments have helped pay for treatment plants and sewer extensions, they're reluctant to pay for undoing years of neglect.
The bottom line is that users are going to have to pay to fix their sewers. One rate increase already has resulted from the Justice Department settlement. Others are sure to follow, but city water and sewer rates have been historically low. Painful increases are the price we pay for halting spills that threaten the environment and public health. As a Justice Department official put it when the settlement was announced, "This is bad stuff."