A Blue View: The Pollution We Cannot See

Published July 03, 2013

by John Racanelli, Chief Executive Officer

A Blue View is a weekly perspective on the life aquatic, hosted by National Aquarium CEO John Racanelli.

From the smallest plants and animals invisible to the human eye to entire ecosystems, every living thing depends on and is intricately linked by water.

Tune in to 88.1 WYPR every Tuesday at 5:45 pm as John brings to the surface important issues and fascinating discoveries making waves in the world today.

March 13, 2013: The Pollution We Cannot See - Toxins in the Water

Listen to John and Blue Water Baltimore's, Halle Van der Gaag, discuss how wastewater is polluting the Bay.

When it comes to cleaning up the Baltimore Harbor, most of us think about trash cleanups. While keeping garbage out of our waterways is critically important, there’s another source of pollution infecting the Bay—bacteria from wastewater. Recently, Halle Van der Gaag, executive director of Blue Water Baltimore, sat with Aquarium CEO John Racanelli to talk about these toxins in our waters, and what needs to be done about them:

John: Tell me about what’s going on right now in our harbor in terms of bacteria and bacteria counts.

Halle: Well, unfortunately there’s way too much bacteria in the Baltimore harbors and our streams that feed the harbor. Though Baltimore has a separate sewer system, unfortunately we see huge amounts of wastewater entering our streams, not just from broken wastewater pipes but unfortunately through the storm drain system, where it’s not supposed to be coming from.

John: And that, I would guess, leads to higher bacterial counts, because these things kind of compound.

Halle: Absolutely. It’s unfortunate, but we have an aging system, on both the storm water and the wastewater side. So pipes are breaking. Raw sewage entering our streams contributes to bacteria, and everyone knows raw sewage in our waterways is not a good thing.

John: Absolutely. Where is this wastewater coming from?

Halle: It’s coming from our homes, our businesses, the places where we work. If you think about it, all our businesses are connected to the wastewater system, and it’s intended to go to the wastewater treatment site, but all along the way, there are opportunities for cracks and breaks and leaks, and that’s where we see the problems occur.

John: So it’s not really about the trash in this case, it’s about the waste stream.

Halle: And if you think about a fishable, swimmable harbor, it’s probably not the trash that’s going to keep you out of there, it’s going to be the bacteria.

John: What are the consequences of this dirty water in terms of how it affects humans and others?

Halle: We tend not to think about the harbor as a place where people recreate, but actually folks are out there in kayaks, paddleboats, on sailboats, and boating. Unfortunately, there are real significant public health risks if exposed. Skin infections, gastrointestinal issues, and even things like our pets getting sick when they run through the streams like the Jones Falls and the Gwynns Falls. So there are significant opportunities for folks to get sick and we are hearing more and more about those types of infections happening here in Baltimore.

John: I guess this must have an economic impact on our community too, eventually.

Halle: Absolutely. Who wants to sit at a restaurant along the Inner Harbor where there’s been a fish kill and where it’s very smelly and dirty? We’ve heard from restaurants last year during the June sewage overflow of how damaging it was to their bottom line.

John: So what’s being done out there right now to combat this overall issue of wastewater pollution?

Halle: Baltimore City is spending millions of dollars through something called the Consent Decree to actually upgrade and fix wastewater pipes and the streams. We hope in the next couple of years, we’ll see significant construction happening, and that should lead to a reduction in wastewater debris in the harbor.

John: Well then let me ask, what is the message we need to get out to really bring action on this critical issue?

Halle: So I think sometimes people can be frustrated about paying into fees to upgrade these systems, but in this case, there’s really nothing citizens can do. This is about city government doing what it needs to do to repair critical wastewater infrastructure, and it’s nobody’s fault the pipes are a hundred years old. We have pipes from the 1800s that are still functional. And so we just need to get behind the city and support these upgrades.

John: Okay, well thank you, Halle, very much for coming to talk about this important issue.

About Blue Water Baltimore Blue Water Baltimore’s mission is to restore the quality of Baltimore’s rivers, streams and harbor. From organizing trash cleanups and planting trees to monitoring streams and advocating for stronger clean water laws, Blue Water Baltimore is hard at work in communities around the state. Learn more at bluewaterbaltimore.org.

The Health Harbor Report Card The recently released Healthy Harbor Report Card 2012 contains Blue Water Baltimore’s annual assessment for the Baltimore Harbor. This year the Harbor received an overall grade of C-. The Harbor’s grade, which is based upon 2012 monitoring data collected by the Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper, was higher than expected. Still, the Harbor met ecological health thresholds only 40 percent of the time, which is just barely a C-.

To view the complete Healthy Harbor Report Card, click here.

To see the Baltimore Harbor’s bacteria monitoring results for yourself, click here.

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John Racanelli

Chief Executive Officer

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