Fresh Water, Foul Sewage
Bill calls for study of expanding Baltimore’s sewage backup reimbursement program
Thousands of residents experience sewage overflows thanks to the city’s aging infrastructure, but few ever get help with the clean up
Above: A sewage backup is devastating whatever the cause, Councilman Kris Burnett said at a hearing. (Webex)
Under pressure amid an increase in basement sewage backups, Baltimore created a program in 2018 to help residents recover the costs of cleaning up their homes and belongings after these eruptions of human excrement.
A second program started this year provides for free clean-up service.
But there’s a big catch in both programs – backups must be solely caused by “capacity-related wet-weather events” to qualify for reimbursement and clean up.
That’s a major reason why, while thousands of backups are reported every year, only a handful of homeowners are approved for reimbursement and even fewer end up with a check from the city.
Under a bill introduced by Councilman Kris Burnett, the city would study the feasibility of expanding the program to include reimbursement and direct assistance for any sewage backup, not just those caused by wet weather.
“I think we can all agree that the devastating impact is the same, whether there’s rain involved or not,” Burnett said at a hearing on Bill 21-0075.
Under the measure, the study would examine “the feasibility of implementing a program to reimburse city homeowners, renters, non-commercial occupants, and residents for the costs of cleaning and disinfecting after building sewage backups that are the result both wet and dry weather events.”
The bill also calls for “an evaluation of the funds that the city has expended over the past 10 years in litigation costs related to1 sewage backups, including, as the case may be, settlement amounts, damages awarded, and attorney time.
Burnett said the backups are not just a health risk but financial burden on “citizens who may be vulnerable or income-limited and can’t afford to clean up.”
Marcia Collins, representing the Department of Public Works, said the agency is prepared to conduct the feasibility study if the bill passes.
Approved unanimously in committee, the bill is before the full Council tomorrow (Monday) for a second reader vote.
Health Risk, Cost Burden
The Building Backup Expedited Reimbursement Program was created to address backups caused by the issues being addressed by sewer system repair work that DPW is completing under a federal consent decree.
Under the terms of that 2002 decree (modified in 2017 after the city failed to meet its deadline), DPW has been spending millions to repair aging infrastructure and stop overflows and intentional releases of sewage into local waterways.
But one speaker who testified at last week’s hearing said linking the reimbursement rules to the decree isn’t a requirement.
“The city does not need to restrict these programs only to what is being defined as caused by the consent decree” issues, said Jennifer Kunze, Maryland program manager for Clean Water Action.
People who experience sewer backups through no fault of their own are still not able to access this program – Jennifer Kunze.
“With the restrictions that are in place, many people who experience sewer backups into their homes through no fault of their own but because of conditions in the public sewer system that they could not have possibly acted to prevent, are still not able to access this program,” Kunze said.
“That’s a large financial burden and a public health risk that the city could actively work to ameliorate by expanding these programs,” she added.
Video of a 3/24/21 hearing on the bill. (Interesting testimony by Blue Water Baltimore’s Alice Volpitta starts at 1:28)
Few are Reimbursed
DPW allows residents to apply online, by email or in person for sewer backup cleaning costs of up to $5,000. But it has been criticized for being poorly publicized and for overly stringent rules.
The city has, for example, rejected claims if investigators found an obstruction such as grease, debris or roots in the sewer line. In such cases, a wet weather overload was ruled out — even if it had rained shortly before the backup.
The failure of the city’s program to reach those who need it has been well documented, most recently in a report by the Capital News Service.
Since the program began in April 2018, only 120 requests for reimbursement were filed by residents as of March 24, 2021, according to data obtained by CNS through a Public Information Act request.
Of those requests, just 19 were approved.
During the same time period, the city received more than 18,700 reports to its 311 service related to sewage backups in homes, according to records obtained by CNS.
Last year alone, residents reported more than 7,000 backups.