Baltimore frequently gets the blame for millions of gallons of wastewater that flows from its sewers into waterways, but there is another city responsible for sending large amounts of such contamination and bacteria into the Chesapeake Bay, according to a new report.
Overflows from the antiquated sewer system in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, sent more than 1 billion gallons of sewage-tainted wastewater down the Susquehanna River in 2018, according to a report released Thursday by the Environmental Integrity Project. The Susquehanna is the main source of fresh water for the Maryland portion of the Chesapeake.
In Baltimore, sewage contamination released into rivers and streams totaled at least 260 million gallons in 2018. The volume of Harrisburg’s pollution is far greater in part because that city has a combined wastewater and stormwater system, while Baltimore has separate systems of pipes for sewage and rainwater.
The group’s report faulted Pennsylvania environmental officials and the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to impose penalties for the sewage pollution. It also said the contamination has actually increased since Harrisburg was required to address the overflows under an agreement with state and federal regulators in 2015.
“Pennsylvania’s governor and lawmakers should step up and take responsibility to pay for a solution to this public health problem in the state capital,” said Ted Evgeniadis, the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper, in a statement.
Sewage pollution is a hazard in waterways because it introduces dangerous bacteria that are harmful to swimmers and nutrients that overwhelm Chesapeake ecosystems with algae blooms and cloudy waters. That prevents sunlight from reaching underwater grasses, important habitat for young crabs and fish, and leads to “dead zones” with little or no oxygen along the bottom of the main stem of the bay.
J.J. Abbott, a spokesman for Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, said state officials still were reviewing the report’s findings and recommendations Thursday. He said the administration has worked to reduce stormwater runoff around the state capitol complex in Harrisburg, installing rain gardens and removing pavement, and has proposed creating a grant program to help fund similar projects around Pennsylvania.
Harrisburg water and sewer authorities released a plan last year to spend $315 million over 20 years to reduce sewage pollution.
The Environmental Integrity Project’s report said sewage overflows from Harrisburg pipes into the Susquehanna totaled 1.4 billion gallons last year, up from 789 million gallons in 2016. While much of that increase is tied to record rainfall that repeatedly overwhelmed wastewater and stormwater systems, the report also noted that the number of sewage overflows during dry weather increased from seven in 2017 to 28 in 2018.
More than 9 million gallons of contamination came from a sewer outfall immediately downstream from the governor’s residence on the banks of the Susquehanna, the report said. Its authors found that sewage flowed from the outfall once a week, on average, making waters unsafe for human contact downstream at City Island Park beach.
In Baltimore, heavy rain infiltrates cracks and breaks in aged sewage pipes and inundates the system, causing sewage-tainted stormwater to overflow from two outfalls on the Jones Falls and erupt from manholes around the city. Most of the city’s stormwater is carried in a separate system of pipes.
The city is under a federal consent decree similar to Harrisburg’s ordering improvements to its sewage system and has agreed to spend $1.6 billion on fixes over the next 13 years.
In Harrisburg, sewage overflows flow through the same pipes that carry rainwater from storm drains to waterways.
While the amount of sewage said to contaminate waterways in Baltimore is significantly less than that measured around Harrisburg, Angela Haren, the Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper, said she and others at advocacy group Blue Water Baltimore believe the total here is underreported.
“We have reason to believe there is far more than that," Haren said of the 260 million gallons reported in 2018. “That’s the best estimate.”