It’s “truth is stranger than fiction” week here at What’s Up With That? That’s right! When I got this week’s question from Bud Donovan and Woody Mills, I thought it sounded pretty interesting. They wanted to know about the tall, black-and-white painted tubes rising out of the ground near Beachwood. Mr. Donovan even sent me a picture. After looking at it and reading their questions, I wanted to know what these pipes were too.
Now I know that I have a tendency for hyperbole. In actual fact, I have a positive talent for it. But I initially resisted my impulse to regard these tubes as fantastic or otherworldly monuments to an unfathomable, eldritch puzzle lurking beneath our feet. Instead, I forced myself to assume that some simple answer existed to explain why the very bowels of the earth need to be ventilated in Beachwood.
The truth, however, proved so bizarre that I now have cause to question my recent attempts not to jump to outrageous conclusions. This had roughly the same justifying effect as when a paranoid person discovers incontrovertible proof that he really does have enemies. So it is with a smug sense of self-satisfaction that I report the results of my investigation.
And, I might add, these results weren’t easy to get. The tubes, which are easily 25 feet high and more than 3 feet across, have no sign or indication of who owns or maintains them or what their function might be. And yes, I did check with the Dundalk-Patapsco Neck Historical Society, but they didn’t know either. The tubes stand on the shoulder of the road, and one of them is directly under an I-695 bridge. I thought this might be Baltimore County property, so I bit the bullet and called the government.
To be fair, the bureaucratic morass I fell into was not entirely the government’s fault. I got bumped from one office to another. I spoke with Highways, Environmental Impact, Public Works and a bunch of departments I got transferred to accidentally. But, after playing county government phone limbo (how loooong can you hold?) and speaking to several friendly and well-intentioned people, I was left to face the stark truth: Baltimore County didn’t know a blessed thing about these tubes.
But I was eventually led by divine providence to Jim Dieter, program administrator for the state’s Wastewater Permits Program. He gave me the basic outline of the tube’s purpose and function and put me in touch with the Baltimore City representatives who had more information.
It turns out the tubes are, for all you Titanic fans out there, just the tip of the iceberg. They are the visible portion of an underground system the existence of which I have never heard alluded to even in hushed whispers.
Simply put, the tubes serve to ventilate the wastewater lines that run between the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant and Bethlehem Steel. But — and this was the weird part — the gravity line that moves over 80 million gallons of waste water a day flows from the treatment plant to the steel mill and not, as I would have imagined, the reverse.
As many local residents can tell you, steel production requires a lot of water. Millions of gallons are needed to cool molten steel and for use in other industrial processes. And this water doesn’t have to be particularly clean. I mean, nobody’s going to drink water that’s been used to make steel, right? So way back in the 1940s, the idea guys at Bethlehem Steel got, interestingly enough, an idea.
According to treatment plant officials, the water carried by the line today has been run through the digesters (remember those golden eggs from the Nov. 24 column?) and treated and chlorinated just like the water released into Back River. (Note from 2016: I’ll reprint the Golden Eggs column when I’ve had a chance to talk to the guys at the plant to check how outdated it is). Plus, it was, like, my third column, so it isn’t exactly suave) The only difference is that the wastewater that goes to the mill has not gone through the final step of dechlorination.
The mill water flows under the site of the old Norris Farm Landfill, past the new Beachwood developments, under North Point Boulevard and into a reservoir on Beth Steel property. From there, it is pumped to sites in the mill as needed. Any water not used up in the process then flows to the Humphrey’s Creek treatment facility, where it is again treated and released into Bear Creek.
And the tubes? Dave Dawson, foreman in the Power and Utility Department of the Distribution Systems Division at Beth Steel calls them “vent stacks” and says they are needed to allow trapped air to escape the lines so that the water, which is not pumped but propelled by gravity, can flow freely. He estimates there are about five such vent stacks along the line of the route, which, at the height of steel production, carried over 100 million gallons of water to the plant each day.
So, that’ s the tale of the tubes. They are still, silent markers of the rushing torrent lurking beneath our feet. They link earth, sky and water. Ospreys even nest on some of them. Weird, huh?