Still from a video of a sewer overflow on Chase Street last august in which a giant white grease ball is visible
Still from a video of a sewer overflow on Chase Street last august in which a giant white grease ball is visible (Still from video by David Flores)

On a recent cold morning, environmental scientist Douglas Talaber uses a crowbar to dislodge two manhole covers, each engraved with the word “grease.” Talaber’s job is to make sure food-service establishments are keeping fats, oils, and grease out of the sewer system. He peers down into the hole closest to the adjacent building, the Safeway on Boston Street in Canton. A pungent, yellow-brown layer of floating fat greets him. “Oh, that’s nasty. Yum, yum, yum,” he says.

The noxious stew of congealed meat jelly, butter, oil, fish fat, and sundry other drippings from the grocery store's food-service departments had floated to the top, the first step in a mechanical separation process dividing it from the building's wastewater. Talaber kneels down next to the other manhole and inserts a long transparent pipe with a ball valve on the bottom into the murky water within. By this stage, most of the grease has theoretically been filtered out. He pulls the tube up, filled with water.

"Usually at the top you get a few inches of grease," he says. He measures a layer of settled solids at the bottom of the tube. "This is really clean." His work done, Talaber releases the water and sediment back into the hole and drags the manhole covers back into place. Safeway had passed inspection.


Fats, oils, and grease are a major factor in sewer overflows. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has estimated that they cause as many as 47 percent of reported sewage blockages. These FOGs, in industry parlance, come primarily from commercial kitchens, as well as industrial sources and private homes. Grease deposits congeal and cling to other unpleasant substances in the sewer system (flushable wipes, most infamously), clogging the pipes.

Like most municipalities, Baltimore City requires facilities with commercial kitchens—from schools to hospitals to fast-food restaurants—to divert grease from the wastewater stream. A grease-control device, like the one outside the Canton Safeway, separates the grease from the wastewater; facilities then contract with a commercial hauler to periodically cart the grease away.

At least, that's what's supposed to happen. Until recently, the city rarely monitored compliance, let alone enforced it.

"There were times when we'd pinpoint a restaurant or two, or an area, but it was infrequent," says Patricia Boyle, an administrator for the Bureau of Water and Wastewater pollution control program in the Department of Public Works. Grease-control devices were typically only inspected in the event of a public health complaint about, say, odor or cockroaches, or if there was a blockage in the sanitary sewer or storm drain.

The results have been predictable. Last year, according to DPW records, there were almost 600 sewer overflows in the system, discharging nearly 13 million gallons of untreated sewage and sewage-laden stormwater into local waterways, enough to fill about 20 Olympic swimming pools. Grease was a factor in at least a third of those overflows. (Even when not directly implicated, grease buildup can constrict the capacity of pipes, contributing to overflows during heavy rains.)

Since 2002, the city has operated under a court-mandated consent decree with the EPA and the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) to curb discharges of untreated sewage and come into compliance with the Clean Water Act. The bulk of requirements under the decree have to do with upgrading the city's antique pipe infrastructure (to the tune of more than a billion dollars), but setting up an FOG program is also required. In fact, the decree required an FOG program plan be submitted in early 2003. A full program was to have been in place 18 months after the agency approved that plan.

Baltimore City did not launch its FOG program until late 2013. It has not yet reached the enforcement stage. "This is such a critical issue when it comes to mitigating and ameliorating these sewer overflows," says David Flores, Baltimore Harbor WaterKeeper for the water-quality advocacy group Blue Water Baltimore. "I don't see any explanation why a FOG inspection and enforcement control program would have not been undertaken by 2006 at the latest."

Delays notwithstanding, MDE spokesman Jay Apperson confirmed via email that the city has otherwise fulfilled the requirements of the consent decree as concerns a grease control program, at least thus far. He added: "The city is required to submit annual reports on this program. . . . The development and implementation of the FOG program is an ongoing process, and MDE will continue to review the program to ensure continued progress."

In the nearly year and a half since the program began, Douglas Talaber from the engineering firm KCI Technologies and two other contract employees from EBA Consulting have gathered information on grease-control measures from facilities across the city, establishing a baseline of data for future reference. (Because of the volatility of the restaurant industry, Boyle points out, there is perhaps "a 10 percent flux" in the city's list of food-service establishments.) They have inspected 3,432 locations, nearly every facility in the department's database. Of those, about 1,100 were found noncompliant upon first inspection. A failure to clean and maintain the grease-control device was a common violation. "As long as there's no backup and it doesn't stink, it's an out-of-sight, out-of-mind thing," says Bureau of Water and Wastewater pollution control analyst Vib Patel.

Boyle says about 15 percent of the facilities had no grease-control device at all. Yet even these most flagrant offenders have so far only received violation notices, with no fines attached. "We're trying to educate these guys," Patel says. "We don't want to come out there and be the FBI, break down the doors."

The department has just embarked on a second round of inspections, targeting previous violators in sanitary sewer overflow "hot spots" like Little Italy. Already, inspectors have discovered some novel work-arounds. One restaurant that failed inspection the first time simply rerouted its wastewater, bypassing the grease-control device altogether. This facility was issued another violation notice, as other repeat offenders will be. It is not until the third round of inspections that the city plans to assess penalties, beginning with a $250 minimum per violation.

David Flores, upon hearing these program details from a reporter, expressed frustration at the pace. "I find it disappointing that they're taking this 'three strikes and you're out' approach to enforcement," he said. "Fast-food restaurants, commercial restaurants, are all aware they have to contract with someone to remove their FOGs, so it shouldn't be a surprise." FOGs not only clog the sewers, he says, but are hazards to public health. When he responds to reports of sewer overflows, he says he regularly encounters "chunks of grease" in public areas, along with all the nasty tidbits that can adhere to them: condoms, tampons, toilet paper. (A white grease ball the size of a basketball is visible in a video he produced during an epic sewer overflow last August along Chase Street in East Baltimore.)

Flores says that if the city were quicker to levy fines, it could raise revenue for more inspectors, accelerating the pace of the program. But Boyle says three or four inspectors are sufficient. "Ultimately, I think the people who are perfect all the time we might be able to inspect every two or three years instead of annually," she says. "An inspection only takes about 15 to 20 minutes if the facility has a grease-control device."

DPW is also trying to educate homeowners. A DPW FOG inspector figures as Mr. November in this year's DPW calendar. And community liaisons are reportedly attending community meetings to pass out informational flyers on how to deal with kitchen fat—pro tip: don't pour it down the drain—along with reusable plastic lids for aluminum cans. (The department urges homeowners to store grease in a can until it solidifies, then toss it in the garbage.)


In this realm too, Flores wishes the city would step up its game. "I'd love to see a more visible effort to educate people," he says. But, he says, he is ultimately happy the city is becoming more proactive about FOGs. "It's fabulous that they're finally getting a program together, that they have inspectors funded, and that they're moving forward."


"It's been a huge effort, it really has been," Boyle says. "We're trying."