Baltimore is spending billions of dollars to fix its aging infrastructure, and WJZ was allowed rare access to one of the largest projects–the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant.
The money will transform the facility and eliminate a 10-mile sewage backup.
“The older facilities that we currently have are beyond their breaking point as far as being able to handle the material coming in,” said Marshall Phillips, who manages the Baltimore City-run plant that dates to 1911 and also serves customers in Baltimore County. “They’re just overwhelmed.”
“There’s nowhere else for anything to go. That water will back up and come out of wherever the weakest point is, which sometimes is out of a sewer,” he said.
The massive tanks under construction will hold sewage and hopefully end overflows that pollute the Inner Harbor and the Chesapeake Bay. Those overflows sometimes end up filling basements, leading to costly clean-ups.
“With this project, we’ll get rid of 70 to 80 percent of the sewage overflows that are in the current collection system,” said Monty Simon, who manages the construction project.
“This has been the largest project that we’ve taken on, and we’re pushing ahead. We’re looking to be online by December 31, 2020,” Simon said.
WJZ saw the aerated and treated wastewater, which looked clear as it flowed into the Back River.
The construction projects at the treatment plant are mandated under a federal consent decree, but some environmentalists are concerned about whether they go far enough.
“The consent decree isn’t necessarily tied to improvements in water quality. It’s tied to finishing a list of projects,” said Alice Volpitta.
Volpitta is the lead water quality scientist at Blue Water Baltimore and has made videos of sewage overflows, including raw feces and tampons on Falls Road near the Jones Falls.
She said upgrades need to be about more than just fixing backups.
“Our stance was we really need to see improvements in water quality at the end of this consent decree in order to call it a success,” Volpitta said.
“I don’t think it’s any secret that we’ve been passing the buck for decades on this issue. A lot of our sewer system is over 100 years old at this point and things just aren’t made to last that long.”
But the sewer system is not the only piece of infrastructure getting an upgrade. Another massive project aims to improve the water we drink by enclosing many of the open reservoirs around Baltimore.
The federal government mandates the city’s drinking water no longer be open and exposed to contaminants like bird droppings or anything else. The enclosures also reduce the risk of a terror attack on the drinking water system.
“We call it an unfunded mandate that comes down from the federal government to the state government to us,” said Kurt Kocher with the Department of Public Works.
He showed WJZ the tanks being completed at the Guilford Reservoir near Loyola University. While it takes away the scenic open water, Kocher says “it’ll make a difference in water quality.”
The two massive tanks at the Guilford Reservoir will be hidden by landscaping, and huge new pumps will bring it to homes.
Currently, work is also being done at Druid Hill Park. Other reservoirs have already been enclosed.
Baltimore is also working to repair water mains. WJZ saw a project underway in Charles Village to repair mains that are more than 100 years old.
DPW’s Darron Walker showed WJZ’s Mike Hellgren some of the corroded pipes.
“Just because of all the buildup and rust in the pipe, you’ll have a 2-inch hole in a 6-inch water main left,” he said.
The city is repairing about 15 miles of water mains every year.
Baltimore’s DPW provides water to almost 400,000 customers and now provides an online map showing water main repairs.
Water bills have doubled in the past decade as customers pay for the improvements.
Author: Mike Hellgren, CBS Baltimore