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Baltimore launches live map of sewage pollution — and temporarily stops alerting the public to contamination

More than 14 million gallons of sewage-tainted water has washed into Baltimore streams over the past two months, but city officials haven’t alerted the public of the contamination.

Federal and state environmental regulators require the city to notify the public anytime at least 10,000 gallons of sewage contamination enters waterways. But the Department of Public Works stopped issuing the alerts in late January, when it launched a live map of sewage overflows on its website.

In response to questions from The Baltimore Sun about the change in practice, public works spokesman Jeff Raymond said Monday the online map meant the city didn’t need to issue “a news release or even a tweet.”

“Anyone can check at any time to see the latest information as it becomes available,” he said in an e-mail. “We encourage all residents to use the online tool to see the data for themselves.”

Sewage routinely contaminates waterways across the city and around the region when rain water infiltrates cracks and breaks in sewage pipes. The aged system, more than 100 years old in places, also has dated built-in outflows that routinely spill sewage into the Jones Falls when the system is overwhelmed.

Baltimore has been under a consent decree since 2002 to stop the pollution, which can sicken people and disrupt the ecological balance of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.

The city faces a 2021 deadline on repairs to stop most of the sewage pollution. And the court-approved agreement also requires public notification about the overflows in the meantime. Officials had been issuing alerts through press releases, tweets and e-mails sent to a list of subscribers.

On Monday, when asked about the recent lack of reporting overflows, Raymond at first said the online map would suffice, but the agency would announce “major” sewage overflow events of 1 million gallons or more.

But after The Sun asked when the last “major” sewage contamination occurred, Raymond said the city would resume issuing alerts for all sewage overflows of 10,000 gallons or greater.

The city online database shows four sewage overflows each totaling between 1.4 million and 3 million gallons have been reported since Jan. 24. There have been 11 overflows of at least 10,000 gallons over that time, totaling 14.2 million gallons.

City officials, however, have not issued any sewage overflow press releases since Jan. 22.

Angela Haren, the Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper, noticed the lack of communication, and said she reached out to city officials earlier Tuesday inquiring about it.

“I don’t think [the online map] adequately informs the public, and it’s a public health issue,” she said.

After learning that public works officials said they would reverse course, Haren said she would be watching closely to make sure they follow through.

sdance@baltsun.com

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