The sewage outbreak that took place on or about August 9 from manhole 6883 at Lake Roland was more than an unpleasant, foul-smelling event.
It was a curtain raiser to an important test of the young administration of Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr.
The Dundalk Democrat won last November by promising to be a different kind of politician – one who embraces openness, transparency and environmentally sustainable development. In other words, an advocate for citizens rather than a pawn for the builders and developers who have dominated county government for decades.
It’s now time for Olszewski to make good on that promise with a straightforward answer to the following question: Are the county’s wastewater facilities adequate to handle the burgeoning development in and around Towson?
It’s a question that county officials have dodged for many years.
What Lies Beneath
In 2012, former county executive Kevin Kamenetz announced that he wanted to make Towson a regional destination, “even better than Bethesda, even better than Silver Spring.”
The county released a glitzy video titled “It’s Towson’s Time” to promote his vision.
Suspicions immediately arose that the underground sewers in the area were not up to the job of disposing waste from the massive new development. These concerns were based on well-documented problems with wastewater facilities in the Jones Falls sewershed that not only serves Towson, but also Timonium, Lutherville, Brooklandville and Pikesville.
Sewage from this wide geographic area flows into Baltimore below Lake Roland and is piped through the city to the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant in Dundalk.
In 2005, the county entered a consent decree with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) intended to eliminate overflows that have bedeviled the county’s sewersheds for decades. The city agreed to a similar decree with the EPA and MDE in 2002.
The county is now constructing a roughly two-mile-long “relief” sewer along Towson Run to manage the increase of sewage from construction of the 1.2 million-square-foot Towson Row, expansions at Towson University and other projects.
But it is the sewer that the county is not building that raises troublesome questions about the county’s commitment to environmentally sound development.
As described by The Brew, there are three sewer mains with a combined total of 96 inches of pipe diameter that feed into a single 42-inch-diameter pipe north of Lake Roland, a body of water created by damming the Jones Falls and owned by the city.
Built in the early 1950s, this “interceptor” pipe runs under the lake and connects with a city sewer line just north of Mount Washington.
In 2012, the county’s engineering consultant, Rummel, Klepper & Kahl (RK&K), recommended construction of a “relief” sewer to supplement the capacity of the existing Lake Roland interceptor. The recommendation was made precisely to avoid the type of spill that took place on or about August 9.
In fact, RK&K predicted that manhole 6883 would become subject to sustained overflows during major storms unless the capacity of the Lake Roland interceptor was expanded.
The county did not follow its consultant’s recommendation, and RK&K’s prediction of trouble now appears to be reality.
In their haste to make Towson the next Silver Spring, county officials have simply shifted the likelihood for what are euphemistically called “SSOs” (sanitary sewer overflows) from downtown Towson to Lake Roland – and downstream into Baltimore City.
“Two Sets of Books”
It came as little surprise that the recent spill at Lake Roland was discovered not by the county, but by a member of Green Towson Alliance (GTA).
What scant information the public has about the adequacy of the public wastewater facilities in the Towson area is due to the persistence of the GTA and a group of environmentalists led by Tom McCord of Ruxton.
And what those citizens uncovered heightens suspicions about the county.
They found that the Baltimore County Department of Public Works used out-of-date land use and population data for purposes of preparing a report on deficiencies in the sewerage infrastructure and corrective actions required by the consent decree.
Underreporting increases in population density and development had the effect of overstating the adequacy of the sewerage infrastructure to manage future needs.
The environmentalists also came across information indicating that DPW used higher and more current projections to justify construction of the Towson Run Relief Sewer – McCord described it as using “two sets of books.”
Only through considerable effort did they obtain the 2012 report from RK&K recommending the relief sewer under Lake Roland to handle major storms and predicting potential overflows at manhole 6883.
Not to the Rescue: MDE
Armed with this information, McCord and his group went to the MDE. As a party to the consent decree, the state agency is supposed to ensure that the county complies with the decree.
It also has regulatory responsibility for the triennial review of the county’s Water Supply and Sewerage Plan required by law. The primary purpose of triennial reviews is to verify that cities and counties have plans in place to manage projected increases in sewage.
McCord and members of GTA met with MDE Secretary Ben Grumbles and his staff in May 2018. Grumbles asked his staff at the meeting if he could delay approval of the county’s 2017 triennial review until he had a subsequent meeting with McCord and his group that also included DPW.
Grumbles was told by his staff that he could do so. It appeared that someone finally was going to take the concerns of activists seriously.
But it was not to be.
The subsequent meeting took place in August 2018. The citizen participants were informed that the county’s 2017 triennial review had been approved before the meeting.
A golden opportunity for accountability was thereby squandered by MDE – and the questions raised by the activists left unanswered.
The spill is evidence of a problem that the county would rather ignore.
If it came as little surprise that the Lake Roland sewage spill was found by someone other than the county, it came as even less of a surprise that DPW initially denied the existence of it.
The last thing the agency apparently wants to do is to acknowledge any evidence that the system of sewer pipes that serves Towson is inadequate.
There are no attractive options available to Olszewski if downstream sewerage is inadequate. Obviously, the young executive would rather spend money on schools than on sewers.
A stopgap measure, such as suspending the issuance of building permits in Towson until wastewater facilities are adequate, would come with a political price to Olszewski.
The development community contributed heavily to Olszewski’s defeat of Republican Al Redmer in last November’s general election.
In one instance, the law firm long representing Greenberg Gibbons, co-developer of Towson Row, staged a “who’s-who” of builders and attorneys chipping in their offerings at a Olszewski fundraiser.
The gathering was co-chaired by Michael Paul Smith, son of former county executive James T. “Jim” Smith Jr.; David Gildea, Michael Smith’s law partner; Lawrence Macks, CEO of Chesapeake Realty Partners; and Kenneth Ullman, former county executive for Howard County.
Olszewski now has a chance to show his independence, having named State Delegate Stephen W. Lafferty as his chief sustainability officer.
Lafferty’s rather grandiose charge is to focus on “climate change, green energy and development,” according to a press report.
It’s the latter task – development – that should engage this ex-legislator handed a $105,000-a-year, newly-created job in county government.
Lafferty’s first task should be determining whether public wastewater facilities are capable of serving current and future county development – and, equally important, whether such development makes sense in light of environmental limitations.
This information must be gathered with the active input of groups like the Green Towson Alliance and shared publicly.
How well Olszewski and his lieutenants perform on this question should tell us a lot about how sustainable his image as a reformer will be.
[Published as guest commentary by Baltimore Brew on August 30, 2019 but not posted to my blog until December 18, 2019. The date of posting that appears above was backdated to place all posts in the order in which they were written.]