Sanitary sewage debris at a sewer “stack” and its manhole cover lying on the ground were discovered on January 10 by a volunteer from Green Towson Alliance (GTA). The overflow near the banks of the Jones Falls was reported to Blue Water Baltimore, Baltimore County Department of Public Works and Transportation (DPWT) and Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE). Wednesday’s discovery was in the same area where GTA volunteers found a Sanitary Sewer Overflow (SSO) in 2019.
The current overflow coincides with Baltimore County Council’s pending approval of the 2023 Triennial Review of the Water Supply and Sewerage Master Plan (W&SMP). GTA issued a statement in September calling for the Council to amend the W&SMP to require an independent review of the information and methods used by DPWT to determine whether public sewerage facilities are adequate to support new development and a moratorium on approvals until recommended changes are implemented.
GTA and other advocates have challenged whether there are adequate sanitary sewerage facilities in the Jones Falls Sewershed (JFS) since 2016. Baltimore City and County are under Consent Decrees which require elimination of all SSOs. A 2012 study by consultants described work needed to prevent JFS overflows, but the recommended improvements are incomplete leaving system capacity undetermined. GTA estimates almost 2.2 million square feet of development have been built in the JFS since the 2012 study with more development in the queue. The SSOs found by GTA are just downstream from the dam at Lake Roland, which is where consultants predicted the biggest SSOs from large storms would occur.
DPWT reviews each development proposal for adequate sanitary sewer, but their reviews do not consider MDE requirements to account for how much stormwater enters the system through defects in pipes. In Baltimore County, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) makes the final decision to approve new development. In 2023, the ALJ denied approval of Greenspring Manor, a proposal for 61 new homes in the JFS because of expert testimony that there are not adequate facilities to safely convey the sewerage to a treatment plant. Bluestem, a mixed-use development, was denied for the same reason in 2019. DPWT continues to approve new development and refuses to acknowledge errors in its methods.
Wednesday’s SSO is evidence that the pipes cannot contain the current volume of sewage that occurs during heavy storms, much less additional flow from new development. Storms are more frequent and more intense in the Mid-Atlantic due to climate change. Overflows are a costly and dangerous threat to public health and aquatic life and violate the Consent Decree, as well as state and local water quality laws.
Environmental laws are intended to provide equal protection for the public. Currently in Baltimore County, only citizens with the awareness and resources to hire attorneys and expert witnesses can effectively oppose new developments that will further overwhelm the sewer system.
The GTA statement has garnered broad support from community associations and environmental organizations including Blue Water Baltimore and Sierra Club Maryland Greater Baltimore Group.