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Baltimore approves $11 million emergency repair to avoid ‘catastrophic failure’ in sewage pipe at Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant

Baltimore’s spending board approved $11 million for emergency repairs to one of two primary pipes that feed Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant Wednesday.

The work is needed to repair several “failures” in a 12-foot by 12-foot sewer main just outside the plant, located in Baltimore County and operated by the city. Several cracks have been found in the top of the pipe which carries most of the sewage from both the city and the county, officials said.

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“The concern is that at some point the pipe could fail completely, which could cause a considerable amount of sewage overflows,” said Matthew Garbark, deputy director of the Department of Public Works. “It could be a catastrophic failure in that regard.”

Ten holes were found in the 100-year-old pipe in the area where a force main from Baltimore County connects, said Timothy Wolfe, head of the Office of Engineering and Construction for the Bureau of Water and Wastewater.

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“It’s very critical,” Wolfe said. “These are the only two pipes that convey the 120 million gallons a day of wastewater to Back River.”

That figure increases to 300 or 400 million gallons per day during rain storms, Wolfe said.

Since finding the failures in the pipe, city officials have cordoned off the area on top of it and have been monitoring it daily, Garbark said.

Because the holes are in the crown of the pipe and the pipe is not pressurized, it is not actively leaking, James Bentley, spokesman for the Department of Public Works, said after the meeting. Officials believe the pipe was corroded by gasses emitted by raw sewage.

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“So long as wastewater is moving into the plant at a steady pace, the risk for overflow is minimal,” he said.

The $10.7 million contract with Ulliman Schutte Construction will be spent largely to divert the sewage that flows into the facility as work is underway.

“We’re talking a massive pipe and a significant process in getting pumps and bypass lines to pump that out, so we can isolate that area that needs to be repaired,” Garbark told the board. “It’s not just a normal wastewater conduit.”

The board also approved $300,000 in engineering services from KCI Technologies for the project Wednesday.

Council President Nick Mosby questioned whether any leaks have been found in the second pipe that feeds the plant. Officials said they have been monitoring the pipe to make sure similar holes are not found.

Ulliman Schutte Construction was one of the companies tapped by the city to work on the Headworks Project completed in 2020 at Back River to help fulfill the city’s consent decree requirements to address sewage overflows there. That project cost $430 million.

Environmental advocates and regulators, however, contend that pollution has continued at the site. State environmental inspections this summer found Back River and Patapsco Wastewater Treatment Plant illegally discharged millions of gallons a day of partially treated sewage into the tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay.

On Wednesday, Blue Water Baltimore filed a lawsuit against the city arguing the Back River and Patapsco plants have discharged pollutants into area waters. The group is seeking an injunction to force the city to comply with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations and to pay penalties for noncompliance.

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