Jacqueline and Mac Alyea moved to Academy Heights about two months ago. They had heard from neighbors that sometimes basements in the community flooded from sewage backups. But the sellers of their house, in the 300 block of Stratford Road and built in 1950, according to tax records, told the Alyeas it was no longer a problem.
Then on May 27, their basement flooded with 2-3 inches of water that came up from the toilet and shower. It was up “to our ankles,” Jacqueline Alyea said.
The couple bailed out their basement for eight hours that night and “lost quite a bit of stuff,” including old computer hard drives and her wedding dress, Jacqueline Alyea said.
The Alyeas said they had to gut their basement and that their homeowner’s insurance didn’t cover sewer backups at the time.
While they now have sewage backup coverage, the Alyeas said they’re “not even close” to repairing the basement or replacing the things that were lost. They said their estimated loss, between personal property, their HVAC system and their hot water heater, was around $20,000.
“The money is the problem now,” Jacqueline Alyea said.
Chris Burk, a licensed engineer in Maryland, has lived in Academy Heights, a neighborhood in Catonsville, for about eight years. He said he’s seen basements in the neighborhood fill with sewage water before — even when the area wasn’t experiencing torrential downpours.
“When it comes to infrastructure dealing with sewer, the county has to own up to that, knowing that it’s been decades [that] there have been issues,” Burk said. “It’s really heart-wrenching, having experienced it, and to witness neighbors experiencing something like this.”
Burk said he’s installed a valve in his home’s plumbing to keep sewage from backing up. But he knows not everyone in the neighborhood can afford that kind of work, or ensure that it’s done correctly.
To help prevent more backups, Baltimore County’s Department of Public Works is moving forward with plans for a relief sewer in Academy Heights.
Pipes will be installed that are wider and more durable than the existing pipes and they will be able to better accommodate flow, according to Thomas Kiefer, chief of the department’s division of engineering and construction. Workers will use 12- or 15-inch PVC piping, the current standard material for plumbing work. The current sewer lines in Academy Heights are 8 inches in diameter, made of clay, and about 60 years old.
According to a project timeline provided by DPW, the county decided to design a relief sewer to address ongoing basement backups in 2013. In 2015, the county began acquiring property in the neighborhood to allow for the project’s construction, according to a project timeline provided by the department.
Kiefer said work on the project is scheduled to start in November and take a little more than a year to complete.The projected is focused around Stratford Road, Edmondson Avenue and Overbrook Road.
The work is estimated to cost about $1.5 million, according to the county, but Kiefer said that number could vary a bit depending on bids from contractors.
County Councilman Tom Quirk, who represents District 1, said he was not aware of other communities in the district that need similar sewer work.
Sewage backups usually happen during storms because water that permeates the soil is able to infiltrate the clay pipes and overwhelm the system, Kiefer said. Large storms, like the one that brought heavy damage to Ellicott City and parts of Catonsville and Oella in late May, can be especially problematic for old sewer lines.
“Storms of that magnitude oftentimes certainly increase the amount of flow in the sewer system,” Kiefer said. “The sewer system is never designed to handle such storms.”
Already, the county has done some work in Academy Heights to rehabilitate aging clay pipes In 2011, it completed a “pipeline lining” project in the neighborhood, in which sewers were lined and repaired, but not replaced, to minimize the amount of “extraneous flow” that was getting into the pipe, Kiefer said.