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Baltimore program to help homeowners clean up sewer backups denies 85 percent of applicants

Sewage backed up into thousands of Baltimore homes amid record rainfall last year. So far, a new city program has helped 10 of those households pay to clean it up.

City government launched a program in April providing up to $2,500 in reimbursement for cleanup of sewage backups caused by wet weather. When heavy rain overwhelms Baltimore’s century-old sewer system, and also sometimes even during dry weather, sewage often rises up through basement drain pipes or toilets.

Since then, about 150 residents have applied for the financial assistance, said Timothy McGee, a paralegal in the Department of Public Works. Officials have processed 67 of the requests.

And denied 85 percent of them.

Advocates say the program is a step forward, addressing the fact that it’s not residents’ fault that the city has failed to upgrade its sewer infrastructure. Baltimore’s sewer system is in violation of the federal Clean Water Act for routinely discharging waste into streams and rivers, and the city has been under an Environmental Protection Agency consent decree to fix it since 2002.

But the high bar residents face in applying for assistance through the program shows more needs to be done to help them, said Angela Haren, the Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper.

“There’s a disconnect with the level of requirements and what folks are actually doing when faced with a sewage backup,” Haren said.

The first step some residents are missing: Reporting any sewage backup to the city by dialing 311. About one in four applications processed so far have been rejected because the public works department wasn’t alerted to the backup within 24 hours, officials said.

Next, the city considers whether the backup was truly an act of God, caused by heavy rain alone. Officials rejected another quarter of the applications processed so far because the backups were caused by clogs involving roots, rocks, grease, rags or other debris.

Others were rejected because investigators found no evidence that rainwater had inundated sewers in the area, or that a backup had actually occurred, officials said.

Four applications were rejected because backups occurred before the program launched.

Dozens of other applications haven’t been processed because they were incomplete, officials said. If a date is not included, for example, city officials can’t be sure heavy rain caused a backup.

“With all the evidence there, they get paid,” public works spokesman Kurt Kocher said.

The 10 households approved for reimbursement received between $500 and $2,500, he said.

Separate from the new backup reimbursement program, residents dealing with basement backups can also submit claims for property damage with the city law department. But residents also face a high bar in being paid through that process: A 2016 Baltimore Sun investigation found that about 8 percent of such claims were approved in 2015 and early 2016.

To prevent sewage backups, public works officials urge residents not to pour any kind of fats, oils or grease down the drain or to flush anything except for toilet paper, and human waste. That includes not flushing wipes that are advertised as being “flushable,” but can actually clog up pipes.

Officials also recommend residents buy insurance policies offered by HomeServe that cover a variety of plumbing problems.

According to a public works report, more than 1,100 sewage backups were reported across Baltimore in the three months that ended Sept. 30, the most recent period for which data was available. More than 2,600 backups were reported in the first half of 2018.

sdance@baltsun.com

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