On a road in Baltimore, from a gap in the pavement near a manhole cover, grows a tomato plant. Green roma tomatoes dangle like Christmas tree bulbs strangely out of place beside a steel guard rail. Nearby, just west of Falls Road near the Baltimore Streetcar Museum, several more unruly tomatoes and a squash plant rise and twist amid sewage smells beside an eroded section of the Jones Falls bike trail. David Flores, the Baltimore Harborkeeper, has a theory about the origin of this well-fertilized garden flourishing on the banks of the Jones Falls. It grows out of sewage.
“It’s not guerrilla gardening. It’s not some intrepid city dweller who is planting tomatoes and squash plants in open spaces here and there," Flores said. "These are actually seeds that entered into sanitary sewer system. And because of these sewer overflows, just a couple of feet away, the seeds have come up out of the sewer system and deposited here in this grassy area next to river and germinated and grew tomatoes that I wouldn’t touch let alone eat.”
Now, before you dismiss the Baltimore sewer garden as an urban myth -- like the New York sewer gator --consider the evidence. Toilet paper is plastered to the blacktop leading away from the manhole cover on Falls Road.
And a city sewage contractor working nearby confirmed to me that, yes, in fact sewage overflows are frequent and volcanic from this manhole and the waste flows right into the Jones Falls waterway.
“Every time it rains, this area is overflows bad," the contractor told me. "The manhole lids pop off. They have to shut the road down. And stuff is all over. And this river basically runs straight into the Inner Harbor. It’s a pretty nasty setup.”
The frequent sewage overflows along Falls Road and elsewhere in the city mean trouble problem for the plans of downtown leaders to make the Inner Harbor swimmable within six years. And the overflows happen despite the fact that, back in 2002, EPA sued Baltimore to stop such leaks and discharges from its more than century-old sewer system.
City residents are now paying higher sewer rates to fund $900 million in repairs and upgrades. But the sewage massive repair project is behind schedule and the problems is far from being fixed by their deadline of 2016.
Flores, a clean water activist with Blue Water Baltimore, has documented numerous occasions in which the city has failed to report sewage overflows as required by federal law.
“We’ve found some real problems with the accuracy of the city’s reporting of sewer overflows," Flores said. "There have been several instances where we’ve found well documented under-estimating the quantity of sewer overflows by several orders of magnitude. “
For example, during a rain storm on August 12, the Baltimore Department of Public Works reported three million gallons of sewage overflows across the cit. But the city agency then city revised its estimate – quadrupling it to 12 million gallons -- after Flores showed city officials his videotapes of sewage geysers pouring from manholes.
Flores said Baltimore’s 2002 consent decree with EPA creates a financial incentive for the city to under-report, because EPA fines the city $15,000 for overflows of over 1 million gallons, but only $100 for much smaller spills.
Madeline Driscoll, chief of the office of Asset Management for Baltimore City Department of Public Works, said many of the city's projects to upgrade its sewage lines are just now getting underway, but that their intention is to reduce overflows.
She allowed that it is possible that the city occasionally under-estimates sewage overflows during rain storms, simply because it does not have enough staff to monitor every manhole.
“They’re all estimates, but it’s really the best we can do," Driscoll said. "We do not have the manpower to have people seeking out especially wet weather overflows.”
The city has been penalized more than a half million dollars by the state and federal governments over the last three years for the millions of gallons of sewage overflows and leaks the city has reported.
It might be helpful if that taxpayer money could be piped right back into the city, to accelerate the repairs to the decaying sewer lines that are feeding unhealthy fruit-- like a bacteria-laden Inner Harbor tourist district, and the septic tomatoes on Falls Road.