GRANOLAPARK: Nasty stuff

From Field Findings Memorandum presented by Center for Watershed Protection to the city council.


Nasty stuff is getting into Maple Avenue’s watershed, Takoma Park’s storm drains, and into Sligo Creek and it’s tributaries. One of the hot spots is behind the Ritchie Park apartments at 7600 Maple Ave. Another is near the Piney Branch Elementary School at 7510 Maple.

E. coli, ammonia, bacteria, phosphorus and nitrogen were some of the pollutants found.

You could see the council member’s flesh crawl, imagining school children splashing in contaminated water, as the “Maple Avenue Outfall Pollution Source Tracking” report was presented Feb. 7.

The study was partially funded by the city, and was conducted by the Center for Watershed Protection, Inc. It was presented to the council by project manager, Lori Lilly.

Starting with two big storm-water “outfall” pipes that feed into the creek, researchers took samples, then tracked the pipes back to their various sources.

Report map showing ammonia concentrations in vicinity of Park Ritchie Apartments and Piney Branch Elementary School.

Report map showing ammonia concentrations in vicinity of Park Ritchie Apartments and Piney Branch Elementary School.

Manhole madness

This was not an easy job. All the city’s underground pipes are not well mapped. Not all of the access manholes are easily found. One was under a fallen tree, another behind a Metro fence. It was not easy to tell which of the two systems in the watershed the manholes accessed.

They took water samples at each manhole. This helped locate the area where pollutants get into the storm water – which is supposed to be unpolluted rain water.

CCTV footage of the city’s storm water pipes indicate that the lines are cracked. The footage was provided by the Public Works Dept.

They found hot spots of high pollution, but had difficulties finding the source.

The storm water, and even the standing water in the wetlands behind Park Ritchie Apartments was so contaminated, they felt sure a nearby sewer line was leaking. WSSC, the regional water utility, came out to run a CCTV camera through its sewer pipes there. They had problems feeding the camera into the pipe because it was obstructed with debris, including bricks. The researchers said such obstructions are not usually found in sewer lines.

According to project manager Lilly, WSSC’s camera showed “open joints,” and “critters” living in the lines. Critters would only be there if the line was breached, she said.

However, WSSC said the line was not leaking, said Lilly but it did say it was scheduled for work. It did not say when.

Councilmembers said that area was the scene of a previous sewer leak.


Somewhere in the Park Ritchie vicinity there’s a clothes washing machine – or a lot of washing machines, dumping waste water directly into the storm water line. Sudsy, detergent-smelling water regularly discharges from one of the outfall pipes into the creek.

The first suspect was the Park Ritchie Apartments laundry room. But dye tests showed that was not the source. Researchers speculated that individual apartments at the Park Ritchie or nearby buildings may be the source. They did not have the resources to test them all.

The Center’s report recommends the city take a number of steps. It should get a full cctv video of the entire storm drain system and follow up on all suspicious flows – “dry-weather” flows indicate a source other than rain water,

This includes hiring an expert to don a haz-mat suit and crawl back into the outfall pipes to get better samples. Euww.

The storm drain system map should be updated, showing all the manholes and access points.

The Center suggested the city reevaluate it’s current “illicit discharge detection and elimination”  agreement with the county. The county is supposed to do followup, but its resources are stretched thin. Lilly said the city should consider doing it themselves as it does its own water testing. It would get done sooner, she said.

From Field Findings Memorandum presented by Center for Watershed Protection to the city council.

From Field Findings Memorandum presented by Center for Watershed Protection to the city council.


The council is annoyed and pleased with Walgreens all at the same time.

Walgreens is a pharmacy chain. It has a store at the Takoma/Langely Crossroads where University and New Hampshire Avenues intersect. The Walgreens corporation owns the land the store sits on – and a great deal more. All the lots on New Hampshire Avenue up to Holton Lane and a bit beyond belong to Walgreens.

It’s a quarter of the famously ugly commercial area, which happens to be what the city calls one of the “gateway” into Takoma Park. It’s also an area about to boom when the light-rail Purple Line is built, terminating at the Crossroads.

Nobody knows just what Walgreens has in mind there. Selling off the land once the boom takes hold? Building its own shopping center? Walgreen executive rarely come down to earth to speak to such mundane figures as city officials. But when they did, all was made cordial and the officials swallowed the “We must stay in touch!” line. That was almost the last heard from Walmart.

They did send a request two years ago asking the city to relinquish right-of-way to the alleys that criss-cross the Walgreen block. What was that all about? Nobody is sure, except that would make it easier to build something BIG there.

Another request dropped from above last week. Walgreens asked the city’s help submitting a grant request to the state. And, make it snappy, we’re close to the deadline.

At no point was this request made in person. No Walgreens rent-a-suit making an obsequious Powerpoint presentation to the council. Just a lousy piece of paper.

So, the council was annoyed.

On the other hand, the grant Walgreens is applying for would fund a project to make the property more storm-water friendly – “addressing the imperviousness of the entire property,” as council member Fred Schultz said.

The Maryland Department of the Environment grant will fund most of the $1.6 million storm water retrofit project. The results would be, so Walgreens says, increased water infiltration, reduction of the heat island effect, a benefit to the Anacostia River watershed, and improvement to the overall appearance of the property.

By law, the city has to make the application on Walgreens’ behalf.

Annoyed as the council was by the corporations high-handed behavior, as soon as those magic word “environmental benefit” were spoken, the council drew it’s collective, sustainable breath, and approved the application unanimously.

Waive goodbye

That person making your meal at Takoma Park’s Food Truck Friday may be a criminal.

Why? Because one of the regulations the city temporarily waived in order to allow food trucks is the requirement that the vendors must have criminal background checks.

The city also waived permitting fees, the 15 minute rule to find another location, and hours-of-operation rules. These latter two were aimed at ice-cream trucks.

The city’s permit fees were on top of county permitting fees, which the vendors still have to pay.

If the city restores its permitting fees, it will about double the cost to vendors, making the city the most expensive venue in the county. Other municipalities charge permitting fees, but do not require county permits.

The city council pondered these facts in a Feb 7 work session. They must decide what to do to keep the now-beloved food trucks. This means reconsidering the current permit fee requirements, rescinding the rather silly criminal background checks, and deciding just where food trucks can and cannot go. That might include parking lots and community centers, but not parks. It would also include private property if the property owner applies for the permit. Liability insurance must be required. And there should be a limit on how many trucks in each location.

A ban on food truck stryofoam containers was discussed. Councilmember Fred Schultz objected, saying “if we do it, we should do it for all businesses.”

Indications are that the food truck experiment has been a big success, and the council is glad to revise the city laws to allow them in on a permanent basis.

As councilmember Kay Daniels-Cohen said “I’d food truck the whole city!”

So, next time you’re at the food truck, as the person waiting on you, “Hey, is that a ‘prison tat?'”

Slap happy

Here’s a slap in the face to the city’s counter-culture heritage. A council majority approves (in a straw vote) of a staff recommendation to license owner-occupied group homes.

This city was built on group homes since the 60s. How many people first lived here in a group home?  How many residents could only afford  to buy here if they turned their house into a group home? How many still need to do that as home prices hover around $400,000 for a one-story bungalow?

So, the city proposes rewarding these people who are stretched thinner than wallboard tape just so they can live here by slapping license fees and inspections on them?

As one long-time resident told us, “Are you kidding? We bought a handyman’s special. It never would have passed inspection. It was our FRIENDS living with us. They didn’t care if a wall was falling down.”

Apparently, only Mayor Bruce Williams and councimember Terrry Seamens, who both voted against the proposal, remember days like those.

– Gilbert


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About the Author

Gilbert is the pseudonym of a hard-bitten, hard-drinking, long-time Takoma Park resident who maintains the granolapark blog. Gilbert and William L. Brown — Granola Park's mild-mannered chief of staff, researcher, and drink pourer — have never been seen in the same place at the same time.

4 Comments on "GRANOLAPARK: Nasty stuff"

  1. Pollution in the creek and in water at outfalls throughout the city is not a new problem

    I posted test results a couple of years ago at

    One link is to “Notes on test results of water at discharge structures (showing, for example, “very high levels of enterococcus” at outfall at Cherry and Sligo Creek Pkwy, and “high levels of chlorine and detergents” at outfall near Poplar and 4th Avenues (May 2007).”

    I believe the city is supposed to perform such tests annually, or at least semi-annually. It would be interesting to see whether the pollution is getting worse, “better,” or is satying about the same. Perhaps the consulting firm hired to review Takoma Park’s environmental programs and make recommendations to the council will address this issue.

    Animal feces are likely contributing to the pollution, along with high levels of nutrients in the form of broken-down leaves. And of course all the road construction we’ve been seeing has added sediment to the waterways.

  2. These particular consultants were focusing on where it was coming from, not how much was coming out of the pipes into the creek.

    The reason, as we understood it, was that eliminating the pollution at the source is cheaper than installing filtration and treatment units in all the storm drains before they feed into streams and rivers.

    Seems like they didn’t entirely succeed in this. They found the areas where pollution is coming from, but not the exact sources. The detergent suds, for example were from an apartment building, but NOT from their laundry room. So, without testing every apartment, the source could not be pinpointed.

  3. Steve Davies | February 12, 2013 at 3:56 pm |

    Interesting; I hope they’re able to find the source. I recall Columbia Union being fined a few years back for illegal discharges. (I’m not saying they’re responsible here, of course) MOU between county and city allowing county to investigate illegal discharges College fined for polluting Sligo Creek

  4. Thanks for posting this article; I only just saw it! We’re getting ready to do some more investigative work in the Maple Ave drainage with the City and County this fall. Hoping we have luck. WSSC was acquiring permits to repair the sanitary lines behind Park Ritchie last I heard (a couple of months ago). A volunteer has been collecting water samples at the outfall and behind Park Ritchie monthly so we should be able to see if there is an improvement.

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