Sewage soiling thousands of city basements, but another decade of repairs looms

More than a dozen times a day, sewage backs up into Baltimore homes, but repairs might take another decade.

Ima Bennett was doing laundry one evening when she noticed water pooling around the basement toilet. She pulled out the Shop-Vac and called a plumber while rain poured outside.

It was no leak. By the time the plumber began an inspection, dark-brown water erupted from the toilet and sink and spewed from a pipe in the wall. Overloaded sewer pipes were sending human waste into the home and two others next door in Bennett's Belvedere neighborhood of North Baltimore.

"It was just gushing out," she said.

The muck that came with that February rainfall filled the basement 2 feet high, destroying the water heater and an air purifier, and soiling a wheelchair and a number of boxes. Frantz Walker, Bennett's brother and the owner of the home, spent $9,000 to clean up the mess and replace the water heater — costs that insurers refused to cover and that Walker is now asking the city to help pay.

More than a dozen times a day, on average, a Baltimore sewer main rejects the waste residents have flushed down toilets and washed down drains, sending it back into basements. The problem is a side effect of the city's incomplete efforts to stop sewage from overflowing into streams — despite a court order that it fix the aged system by the end of last year. Sewer rates have more than doubled in the meantime.

As officials prepare to enter a new agreement with federal and state environmental regulators to finish the repairs, critics are demanding that the city be required to address the thousands of sewage backups likely to continue as work drags into the next decade.

Public works crews responded to nearly 5,000 reports of sewage in city basements last year, according to data the city provided to The Baltimore Sun. Figures from the city's 311 call center suggest the total number of backups is much higher. Residents have reported more than 7,500 backups since February 2015, though the city is not legally responsible for many of them.

Backups can set homeowners back thousands of dollars — costs the city frequently refuses to cover, The Sun found — and repeated problems can prompt insurance companies to cancel policies or deny claims.

"You walk down the stairs, and everything you've paid for is destroyed," said Vincent Johnson, whose Cherry Hill basement was flooded with sewage five times in a single year. Home insurers have dropped his coverage twice, and he doesn't remember how many times the city has denied his requests for compensation.

He has nonetheless received more than $237,000 for his troubles. When he sued the city in 2010, a jury awarded him $92,000, one-third of it as damages for getting sick after he waded through the sludge with trash bags around his legs. A second lawsuit ended in a $145,000 settlement the city approved in March.

The money helps — Johnson used the award from the first case to pay off the mortgage on his house, which overlooks the Patapsco River near Harbor Hospital. But he would rather see the city fix its crumbling municipal infrastructure.

"They throw a few dollars at you, and they think that makes it OK," he said.

A system overwhelmed

The problem goes back years, and so do the efforts to solve it.

In 2002, the city entered a court-approved agreement with federal and state environmental regulators to end chronic releases of sewage directly into waterways. By design, that was how the system relieved pressure when it was overloaded, to the detriment of the health of the Inner Harbor and Chesapeake Bay.

Since then, the city has spent more than $700 million of an expected $1.5 billion in required repairs. That included closing 60 of 62 outflows that were long used as those relief valves.

While that means there is significantly less sewage flowing into streams, the problem isn't solved. In the same February rainstorm that flooded Walker's North Baltimore basement, for example, 12 million gallons of untreated wastewater and runoff flowed into the Jones Falls. The remaining two outflows routinely dump into the stream with each big rain.

Still, without the other 60 relief valves, pressure builds in the network of pipes, making them more prone to back up.

Cracks and breaks in pipes let stormwater seep into the sewer system, further overwhelming it.

A 12-foot-wide main leading to the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant has gradually fallen out of alignment with an opening into the facility, either because of the weight of sewage over the years or possibly an engineering error, officials say. As a result, there is routinely a 10-mile backup of stagnant sewage extending under the city through East Baltimore to Charles Village.

Clogs caused by grease or so-called "flushable" wipes also are to blame for isolated backups.

In a lawsuit filed in February, a West Baltimore woman claims a 2014 backup that she blamed on nearby sewer repair work had enough force to knock her off the commode, seriously injuring her.

Public works spokesman Jeff Raymond said that incident stemmed from work being done to clean out a sewer line and wasn't related to the larger systemic problems that lead to backups.

Raymond said the number of backups into homes is declining. Last year was the first in a decade during which sewage backups didn't number more than 5,000 in the city.

Still, they occur significantly more often than before the city closed the dozens of relief valves. There were 622 backups in 2004.

Though Baltimore County residents are connected to the same water and sewer system, backups occur relatively rarely there. County crews responded to 123 backups last year and 245 backups in 2014, their busiest year since at least 2005. In three years out of the past decade, backups numbered fewer than 40.

County infrastructure is generally newer, and is uphill from the city's backups. The county also has a dozen outflows that still release wastewater when the sewer system is overloaded.

Headache and hazard

In the city, the toll on residents can be significant.

"We have had our basement redone I don't know how many different times," said Delores Wilson, a resident of Grove Park in Northwest Baltimore who dealt with repeated sewage backups until the city installed a device in her pipes that blocks sewage from entering.

Wilson and her husband made at least three claims to their insurer of more than 50 years. But after getting a payout for the most recent backup in 2012, when sewage filled their basement up to the third step of the stairs leading to the main floor, their policy was dropped.

They received what Merriman Wilson called "a pittance" from the city, covering maybe one-fifth of their costs.

City Solicitor George Nilson said in most cases, the city doesn't have to pay for damages because — under the law — it isn't held responsible. When it does pay, he said, officials may conclude they are responsible for only a portion of the cost.

When sewage backs up into a home and residents call 311, they often are initially told to call a plumber. City crews are responsible if a plumber finds slow-moving or stagnant sewage underneath nearby manholes, but not if a backup is traced to a blockage or break that occurs on a homeowner's property.

"You just never know how long it's going to be for [the city] to come out," said Jamie Smith, owner of a local Mr. Rooter franchise. "That's usually the wild card, getting them to come out and accept responsibility that they need to do something to fix it."

Cleanup can cost thousands of dollars and take days. Given the health hazards of coming in contact with raw sewage, crews in impermeable full-body suits must pump out the mess and then dispose of or sanitize anything that it touched.

The city typically doesn't play a role beyond clearing the pipes. However, just over the border with Baltimore County, public works officials said their crews typically pump the sewage out of basements for residents.

City residents can petition for reimbursement when backups in their homes are the result of a problem in public sewer lines — but such claims are rarely successful. Of 160 claims made since January 2015, 13 of them have been approved for a total of $54,000 in payouts, according to data obtained by The Sun through a Public Information Act request.

More than half of the claims are denied, while more than a third are still under review.

"Homeowners in the city are being left to clean it up on their own," said David Flores, the Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper.

While officials know the aged infrastructure is prone to failure, Nilson said the city is obligated to pay only if officials were aware of a specific problem in the sewer lines and did nothing to fix it.

"We are not omniscient," Nilson said. "We can't know about all these problems through thousands of miles of these lines, and the courts recognize that."

City public works officials say they are working to reduce backups by educating residents about what they shouldn't flush or pour down the drain — like grease, paper towels and wipes — and by inspecting and repairing the system's most problematic segments first. Unlike public works projects that directly address sewage leaks into waterways, the inspection program isn't required of the city under its agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency.

"We have decided to do this because it's the right thing to do," Raymond said.

In 2014, crews began the five-year effort to inspect pipes connecting 9,000 homes to sewer mains. Contractors snake cameras through what are often 80-year-old pipes to find cracks and breaks and report them to the city, which makes repairs or alerts homeowners to problems on their private property.

While backups may be declining, a "tremendous" amount of work is still needed, Flores said.

"This is still a widespread problem," he said.

'Should be a priority'

Clean-water advocates say the city should be held responsible not just for keeping sewage out of waterways but out of homes.

Within weeks, the city and the EPA are expected to release a revised agreement that could guide as much as a decade of further sewer repairs. Like the initial agreement, it will push the city toward complying with the federal Clean Water Act. But the original agreement does not mention sewage backups or the health hazards they create.

City and federal officials would not say whether they have discussed backups in their negotiations, but advocates said they hope the new agreement protects residents as much as it does waterways.

"I don't think it's fair to the residents of Baltimore to make it an either-or situation," said Alison Prost, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Prost suggested channeling money from any penalties EPA levies on the city for sewage leaks to a fund that helps residents deal with backups.

Adam Lindquist, director of the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore's Healthy Harbor Initiative, said Baltimore needs to find a way to do more.

"The problem is you're in a city that has limited resources, and it can only do so much so quickly," he said. "With a new mayor coming in, it has to be clear that fixing our infrastructure should be a priority."

Both the city and Baltimore County governments have raised water and sewer rates significantly in recent years to pay for millions of dollars in infrastructure work. City sewer rates are 126 percent higher than they were a decade ago. Come July 2017, Baltimore County sewer rates will be 78 percent higher than they were five years earlier.

Some city residents know not to expect a quick fix.

Robert Smith said he and many of his Darley Park neighbors have had sewage in their basements. When a snowstorm hit in January, they had to shovel a path for public works trucks to come fix a massive clog. He said he would be happy with any progress.

"I know it's going to take time," he said. "I hope it doesn't take some kind of catastrophe like cholera or something."

sdance@baltsun.com

twitter.com/ssdance

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
79°