The Baltimore Sun reported on a 4.1-million gallons sewage spill into the Jones Falls on Monday the 16th of April. It stated that heavy rains inundated the sewer system. Baltimore is consistently the worst offender of raw sewage pouring into the Bay. That is to the tune of millions of gallons of raw sewage. Yet no one from either of the self-proclaimed Bay’s apex environmental groups raises the alarm about Baltimore’s sewage problem. If you aren’t aware of where all that sewage ends up let me tell you. It simply ends up in the Chesapeake Bay.
For two organizations that constantly crow about their stewardship of the Bay and its resources, it seems odd that when such a serious water quality issue like raw sewage arises, they are strangely silent. Apparently, it is much easier for the Bay’s “watchdogs” to go after the low hanging fruit of the commercial fishery. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Coastal Conservation Association are just not visible when it comes to the constant threat that Baltimore’s ongoing inability to handle large rain fall amounts resulting in urban runoff and sewage overflows. Granted these spills happen at an alarmingly frequent pace but to not be heard about them reeks of a jaded attitude towards such serious issues.
Past president of the Maryland Waterman’s Association, Larry Simns and current president, Robert T. Brown, declared the MWA’s environmental concerns should be about wastewater management problems. If you pause to consider this, it will be easy to understand why a commercial fishery would be concerned about sewage in the waters from which it makes it’s living. Water quality is after all what we all are most concerned about. MWA does not have anywhere near the financial assets that both CBF and CCA could use to help ameliorate the issue of Baltimore’s repeated sewage overflows.
Let me give you a short history about the oyster industry and Baltimore’s sewage system. In the early parts of the last century, Maryland’s oyster industry was threatened by a cholera outbreak. You may ask how do oysters and cholera get together to sicken and kill people? Raw, untreated sewage is the answer. Baltimore did not always have a sewage system. It’s waste usually ran down the streets along with all of the garbage directly into Baltimore harbor waters and nearby tributaries. Somewhat like today. Oysters harvested in and near these waters were routinely shipped cold all over the U.S. to places like St. Louis, and Chicago among other cities. Maryland oysters were considered by aficionados to be the zenith of shellfish. That is until people started to get sick, and in some instances died.
Maryland oyster shucking house owners went to Baltimore and flatly told them the city was responsible and that if the city did not install sewers and a waste water system that Maryland would not only be responsible for widespread diseases like cholera but the state would stand to lose millions of dollars in profits and revenues. The sewer system that is currently in place dates back more than 100 years according to the Baltimore Sun.
The article goes on to state that the system is currently being up graded to prevent such releases of sewage into the waters of tributaries and the Bay. For the 25 or so years I have been involved in Bay issues I can only say I have been hearing such claims and they are not at all reassuring.
I just spent ten days working alongside watermen from the upper Bay doing what we call, “ghost potting”. Translated, it means retrieving derelict and lost crab pots. This work was done just outside of the Baltimore harbor at the mouths of the Gunpowder and Little Gunpowder Rivers. It was funded by MDOT and managed by the Oyster Recovery Partnership. The purpose was to mitigate wetland issues that will arise from the Route 40 bridges reconstruction over the two tributaries. Can you imagine what would happen to one of Maryland’s most iconic tourist draws if people started to put two and two together to conclude that crabs caught in that area are living in sewage-tainted waters? Go one step further and wonder what sport and tourist anglers would think if they realized the fish caught in the upper reaches of the Chesapeake Bay were having to swim in such waters? The folks that go swimming off the public beach at Miami Beach, where closures after such heavy rains are a common event, might also want to be concerned.
According to the Sun information about health concerns as a result of such overflows may be found here. Is there any reason why that information is not available from the CBF or CCA?
It has been nearly a week and yet no word from either organization. So again, I ask…Where are the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Coastal Conservation Association when such sewage overflows occur. Just because this happens, every time it rains hard on Baltimore does not mean that these well-funded organizations should not constantly be raising the alarm and pointing out the need for Baltimore to lead the way in its own wastewater management.
Marc Castelli is a artist and photographer living on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. His work is focused on watermen, lobstermen, their workboats, America’s Cup racers and their yachts, and the extended families that race their log canoes of the
Chesapeake Bay’s Eastern Shore.