By Dharna Noor
They say when it rains, it pours. In Baltimore, when it rains, shit pours: Human shit from the city’s sewers pours into the Chesapeake Bay, into the street, and into people’s homes.
Basement backups—shit streaming into people’s homes—will be the subject of an investigative hearing this week.
Baltimore’s decades-old sewage system was designed to allow excess raw sewage to flow directly into city streams and the Chesapeake Bay. In 2018 alone, rainfall washed 260 million gallons of wastewater into the Inner Harbor.
Baltimore City is currently under a federal consent decree with the Environmental Protection Agency and Maryland’s Department of the Environment to reduce these polluting sewage overflows into streams and the harbor. As officials work to close sewage outflow points into waterways and adhere to the consent decree, excess sewage flows out of drain pipes and into city residents’ homes.
These sewage backups can expose residents to bacteria, viruses, and parasites, which can cause infections. And they’re not just unhealthy and gross—they can also be costly, damaging floors, walls, furniture, and appliances such as washing machines.
In April 2018, the Department of Public Works (DPW) created an Expedited Reimbursement Program for residents experiencing sewage backups—a mandate under the consent decree. Yet according to environmental advocates with Clean Water Action, Blue Water Baltimore, and the Environmental Integrity Project who have reviewed DPW’s reports, the reimbursement program is seriously flawed.
According to their analysis, of the 4,632 reported building backups from April 2018 to March 2019, the city only processed 74 applications for the program. Of the 74 processed, only 10 applications were accepted. The consent decree required that the city set aside $2 million per year for the reimbursement program, but they only doled out $14,775.
On Wednesday, Nov. 13 at 5 PM, Baltimore’s City Council will hold an investigative hearing to assess the Expedited Reimbursement Program, and explore what else the city could do to help mitigate and prevent sewage backups.
“From the beginning, [the Expedited Reimbursement Program] had a lot of shortcomings,” Jennifer Kunze, an organizer with Clean Water Action, told the Real News Network.
One shortcoming was the amount of money the program offered.
“It was capped at a reimbursement of $2,500 which is not adequate to how much these incidents can really cost people,” Kunze said. “It only covers cleanup costs, not property loss, which is where the big damages can really rack up, especially if sewage floods into someone’s hot water heater or furnace.”
Kunze also says the program should apply to a broader range of backups: “It only covers sewer backup that are caused by wet weather events—rain water getting in through cracks and holes in the sewer system and flooding things, flooding the pipes, forcing the sewage to back up.”
But heavy rains aren’t the only things that can cause backups, Kunze said: “If someone has a really terrible sewage backup that’s caused by a fatberg [ed note: a fatberg is a mass of improperly flushed materials held together by cooking grease and other fatty products which can clog pipes], a clog down in the city sewage line, the main line under their street, or even from contractor error of someone who’s working on the sewage lines…that wouldn’t be eligible for reimbursement.”
Often, multiple factors work together to create backups. A clogged pipe, for instance, may only pose problems during a rainstorm.
“Both of those two things together are going to interact with each other and make a sewage backup that might’ve been minor if there was wet weather surcharging going through a perfectly clean pipe, turn into a major problem,” said Kunze. “And so to make this determination that if there’s a clog in the pipe, wet weather didn’t contribute and someone shouldn’t be able to get help from the city that they need is not an equitable way to make that decision.”
DPW has not made public how they determine whether or not a backup was caused by a ‘wet weather event’ or heavy rainfall.
Another factor that can exacerbate these backups: the climate crisis. 2018 was Baltimore’s wettest year on record, and more rain puts more stress on the city’s pipes, creating more sewage backups.
“It’s only right that a responsible amount of that money is going back to help people who are experiencing this really, really awful problem in their homes,” Kunze said. “And I mean, people’s water bills are going up.”
The repairs and replacements the city is mandated to undertake under the federal consent decree will eventually cost city ratepayers $2 billion. To raise this revenue, the city has imposed a series of water and sewage rate hikes. This year, the price of water increased by 10%, and two more 10% rate hikes are planned over the next two years. Even before the latest increase, water rates had doubled since 2012. These rate hikes have prompted calls to implement an income-based water billing system.
Kunze says there are several ways to improve the existing reimbursement program which she hopes officials will address. “Reimbursement should not be capped at $2,500, as that does not reflect the cost of one of these incidents,” she said. “Reimbursements should not only be for clean-up costs, also for property damage, and you should be able to get reimbursement for an incident that’s caused by problems in the city side of the sewer line, whether that’s wet weather or a fatberg or anything else that isn’t on your property and your own responsibility,” she said.
She hopes the discussion doesn’t stop there.
“More broadly, I think that we should really be looking to cities like Cincinnati, Ohio that have been more proactively dealing with this through a public health lens,” she said. “In Cincinnati…when you call to report that there is sewage in your basement, the city will send someone out within four hours and then provides a cleanup crew that is able to handle this hazmat situation in your home and then clean it up for you.”
Wednesday’s hearing will give city officials an opportunity to sort this shit out.
“We need to make sure that we are prioritizing stopping sewage backups from happening because of their really enormous public health impacts that they have on Baltimore City residents and the financial impacts,” Kunze said.