11 p.m. Update: The Anne Arundel County Department of Health has ordered an emergency closing of a section of the Patapsco River and is warning against direct water contact with potentially contaminated water. The affected area includes the section of the river downstream from Annapolis Road.
The department said that the closure will remain in effect until further notice. People coming in contact with the affected water are advised to immediately wash well with soap and warm water immediately and also wash clothing.
2:49 p.m.: After enduring an earthquake, a hurricane and a power failure that has lasted for days, residents of the 2800 block of Manoff Road in the southwest corner of Baltimore County faced another hardship Tuesday—an enormous sewage-filled hole behind their homes.
Half of the raw sewage produced in the county—about 17 million gallons per day—is flowing into the Patapsco River through a ruptured 54-inch pipe near the Patapsco Sewage Pumping Station on Annapolis Road in Baltimore Highlands.
The Baltimore County Health Department has issued a contact warning related to the sewage overflows.
“This is a serious sanitary sewer overflow,” said county public works spokesperson David Fidler. “It’s ongoing, and the entire department has been mobilized.”
The rupture was discovered shortly after midnight Sunday, Aug. 28, during the height of Hurricane Irene, when public works crews were dispatched to inspect facilities after widespread power failures affected the area, Fidler said.
Information about the rupture of the 54-inch pipe in Baltimore Highlands was released to the media about 8:30 p.m. on Aug. 29, more than 18 hours after it was found.
Fidler said that the delay was due to internal review of the information and computer problems related to the power failure.
“We were remiss in our duties,” he said. “We are usually very careful about this."
All of the sewer lines in Baltimore County are directed to two treatment facilities in Baltimore City; the Back River treatment plant on the east side, and the Patapsco treatment plant on the west side.
Roughly half of the county’s raw sewage passes through the Patapsco Pumping Station on its way to the treatment plant through the 54-inch pipe running along the Patapsco River, according to Fidler.
Most of the sewer system works by gravity, flowing downhill. “We have 115 pumping stations of various sizes to pump sewage over certain places until gravity can take over,” he said.
On the night of Aug. 28 power failures allowed raw sewage to back up and overflow at 12 county pumping stations.
When pumps stop working, sewage “backs up and flows downhill to the nearest body of water,” Fidler said.
“The flow should be toward the rivers and away from houses,” he said. “It is not a close hazard.”
About 16.5 million gallons overflowed into county streams and rivers because of electrical outages (see for a complete list of affected areas).
Fidler noted that sewage may have flowed over residential property, but added that the risk to people is minimal. “A lot of it had been diluted by heavy rainfall,” he said.
Nonetheless, Fidler warned residents to avoid areas that may be contaminated by untreated sewage.
“People should avoid contact with the water,” he said. “Avoid contact with the whole area.”
Repair of the ruptured 54-inch pipe in Baltimore Highlands may take up to four days. “We hope to have it done by the end of the week,” Fidler said. “They’ll be working 24 hours because of the seriousness of the situation.”
Until the rupture is sealed, 17 million gallons of raw sewage per day is flowing into the Patapsco River, according to Fidler—at least 50 million gallons of sewage so far.
The cause of the rupture is unknown. Speculation ranges from a “water hammer” effect created when the station stopped pumping, to damage from the Aug. 23 earthquake, according to Fidler.
“There are a whole lot of things to look into,” he said. “The causes are difficult to determine. We’re still working on that.”
The four-pump Patapsco Pumping Station was recently improved at a cost of $16 million, according to Fidler. In addition, five miles of the sewer line along the Patapsco River was relined about a year and a half ago in a $23 million project.
Residents on the 2800 block of Manoff Road complained that sewer line ruptures and pumping station overflows have occurred in the past.
Judy Hill, whose home is adjacent to the buried sewer line, said that sewage occasionally gets in her yard and basement. “That water backs up into our basements,” she said.
Hill said that residents aren’t being adequately notified about the sewage spill, noting an 8 by 11 inch sign posted along Annapolis Road.
“There’s a sign over there that says ‘contaminated water,’” she said. “It’s like notifying people in microscopic size.”
People continue to use the Patapsco, unaware of the public health risk, Hill said.
“Downstream there is fishing and boating,” she said. “Kids swim in the water. A lot of people aren’t aware of [the sewage].”