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Baltimore harbor water quality still failing, but advocates see progress

May 10, 2016

New projects in works to reduce trash, sewage and stormwater pollution that render much of watershed unfit for recreation

By: Timothy B. Wheeler | Original Source

{Trash wheel at mouth of Jones Falls, put in in 2014, has prevented tons of trash from littering the Inner Harbor. (Timothy B. Wheeler)}

The 5-year-old campaign to make Baltimore’s harbor swimmable and fishable has yielded only slight improvements in water quality so far, according to a new assessment.  While it’s increasingly unlikely the initiative will make the harbor safe to swim and fish by its self-imposed 2020 deadline, advocates say they believe cleanup efforts are making headway against the trash, sewage and stormwater pollution that render local waters unfit for recreation.

The harbor and the tidal portion of the Patapsco River earned an ‘F’ grade yet again in the third annual “Healthy Harbor” report card released Monday, while the streams that flow into the harbor — the Jones Falls and Gwynns Falls — picked up a barely passing combined score of D-minus.  The Jones got an ‘F’ for water quality, while the Gwynns garnered a ‘D,’ up from a failing water-quality grade in 2013.

The ratings were based on 569 water samples taken throughout 2015 by volunteers at 49 different points around the watershed. The monitoring effort is conducted by the local environmental group, Blue Water Baltimore.

“We’re not going to celebrate a D, but it’s great to see things moving in the right direction on the streams,” said Adam Lindquist, director of the initiative for the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore, a business group that has enlisted area businesses, nonprofits and local governments in the cleanup effort.

A few measures of water quality fared reasonably well last year, particularly levels of phosphorus pollution and of dissolved oxygen in the water, which is needed to sustain fish and crabs. But frequent sewage overflows and leaks from the city’s crumbling, century-old sewer system still make the harbor and streams unsafe for swimming much of the time, according to the report card.

“We’re probably not going to see major improvements until more infrastructure work is done,” said Halle Van der Gaag, executive director of Blue Water Baltimore.

Baltimore city has already spent $700 million on sewer repairs under a consent decree signed in 2002 with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Maryland Department of the Environment. The work is far from finished, though, and the city missed the Jan. 1, 2016, deadline set by regulators in that decree for ending the chronic sewage overflows. Negotiations begun years ago have dragged on to set a revised timetable and cleanup plan.

“However, that does not mean we’re sitting back and waiting,” said Jeff Raymond, communications director for the city Department of Public Works. “We have not stopped any of our activities.”

Just last week, the city took an initial step toward fixing a “misalignment” in the main sewer line leading to the Back River wastewater treatment plant, which officials say causes a 10-mile backup of sewage beneath East Baltimore. Officials say they believe the hitch in the pipe is responsible for the vast majority of overflows, and so awarded a $3.8 million contract for “pre-construction services” to build a system of pumps and massive storage tanks to handle the problem.

The project to fix the misalignment has been delayed almost a year, as officials rejected initial bids after they came in more than $100 million over the estimated $350 million cost. Under the contract issued last week to Clark Construction and Ulliman Schutte LLC, the city hopes to keep costs under control and finish the “headworks” repair at the Back River plant by the end of 2020, Raymond said.

While hopeful that the project will be worth the cost and wait, advocates contend it alone won’t be enough to fix all the sewage leaks and overflows. They want state and federal regulators to impose a new deadline for cleanup, and require measurable improvements in water quality rather than simple completion of a prescribed list of repair projects.

MDE spokesman Jay Apperson said regulators have no timetable for completing a new sewer consent decree, and he declined specifics of the continuing negotiations.

Meanwhile, advocates say they’re heartened by the huge amounts of floating garbage and debris removed from the harbor by “Mr. Trash Wheel,” a water- and solar-powered refuse collector installed two years ago at the mouth of the Jones Falls in the Inner Harbor. Last year, the contraption scooped up 239 tons of trash, including 99,000 grocery bags and 2.9 million cigarette butts.

“There’s a lot less trash out there,” said Lindquist, who also credited the city’s street sweeping program with reducing litter in the harbor.

The $750,000 trash wheel has been so effective that advocates are raising another $550,000 to build a second, smaller one at the Harris Creek stormwater outfall in Canton, which is another large conduit for trash washed down storm drains throughout East Baltimore. Advocates say they’re close to reaching that goal, thanks to the social-media driven popularity of the wheel, which was recently fitted with a pair of googly eyes over its gaping mouth for collecting trash.

“I told the mayor one time that nobody should underestimate how many people care about this issue once they know about it,” said Michael Hankin, chairman of the Waterfront Partnership and CEO of Brown Advisory, an investment firm in Fells Point. “Mr. Trash Wheel has helped a lot of people know about it.”

Other cleanup efforts are spreading as well. Blue Water Baltimore has received a $600,000 state grant to restore natural stream banks to a concrete-lined stretch of the Jones Falls just north of the city. The project is expected to reduce nitrogen pollution flowing downriver by about 100 pounds a year. But perhaps more importantly, advocates hope the 600-foot stretch will improve public access to the stream, which over the years has been channelized and is completely underground as it flows through downtown.

“What’s exciting about where we are is there is just so much on-the-ground activity happening, so many people engaged,” said Van der Gaag.

And for all the impairments, advocates note, nature finds a way to thrive in and around the harbor. A “bioblitz” last year at Masonville Cove, a swath of restored industrial waterfront in South Baltimore, found 132 species of plants and animals. And the water draws plenty of fish and crabs –though state advisories remain in effect urging limited consumption of much of what can be caught there because of lingering toxic contaminants in the bottom.

“The harbor is alive, but not well,” Lindquist concluded.

 About Timothy B. Wheeler:

Timothy B. Wheeler is managing editor and project writer for the Bay Journal. He has more than two decades of experience covering the environment for The Baltimore Sun and other media outlets. Send Tim an e-mail.

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