Health Implications of Impaired Baltimore Harbor Water
By Saima Hedrick
The Baltimore Harbor is located east of the city of Baltimore and has a watershed of approximately 194 square miles. The land within the watershed contains a densely populated urban area, which includes many industrial plants for metal products, ships, and heavy machinery. Stormwater runoff from this area contains runoff contains many organic and chemical pollutants. This runoff pours into the harbor untreated, resulting in severely impaired water.
There are several underlying factors to this problem. The city’s stormwater drains and pipes cannot handle the amount of runoff that is created in a storm. In 2005, the EPA took action against the city and Baltimore promised to invest close to $1 billion to fix the sewage infrastructure to prevent sewage overflow to the local waterways. To date, 385 million has been spent and the shockingly high levels of coliform bacteria (indicative of human and animal waste) have been reduced. However, the levels are still too high for the harbor water to be deemed safe. In July 2010, a sample collected by the fellows of the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism reveal that water in the harbor contained bacteria levels “almost five times the safe limit for human contact”.
The runoff also deposits large amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus into the water, creating a perfect environment for algae that use up all the oxygen in the water. This process, called eutrophication, results in the suffocation of all other oxygen-dependent organisms and a breakdown of the ecosystem. To compound the problem, many of the industries are still dumping high polluted wastewater, containing high levels of nitrates and toxic chemicals such as the carcinogenic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), into the local waterways.
As such, the state has warned people against eating bottom-feeding seafood such as eels, catfish, white perch, and crabs because they may contain dangerous levels PCBs. According to the Maryland Department of Environment, exposure to the water in the Harbor and the connected waterways is not recommended due to risk of diarrhea, vomiting, nausea and severe headaches.
Luckily, the residents of Baltimore City, and surrounding areas, do not drink this water. The City of Baltimore Public Works supplies water to about 1.8 million people in the Baltimore region. This water comes from Gunpowder Falls and is collected in two main reservoirs, Liberty and Loch Raven, both of which are located within the Baltimore Harbor watershed. Rainwater from eastern Carroll County and southwestern Baltimore County is also emptied into the Liberty Reservoir. The Loch Raven Reservoir collects rainwater from the Northern Baltimore County and small parts of Western Harford County and Southern York County, Pennsylvania. The 2010 annual water quality report showed that there were no coliforms in the drinking water. However, a few samples showed elevated levels of lead, nitrates, and volatile organic compounds.
The city government is working on improving stormwater management and infrastructure with the remaining designated funds. Meanwhile, several activist groups are working to fix the community problems contributing to the impaired waters. Blue Water Baltimore is making a $1.2 million effort to repave the sidewalks to allow rainwater to sink into the ground, while other activist groups are trying to clean up the swatches of land within the watershed. The Waterfront Partnership, a coalition of property owners, residents, and nonprofits, aims to make the harbor swimmable by 2020. Although this goal is ambitious, the combined effort of activist groups, nonprofits, businesses, and the local government is what is needed to make an impact.