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City proposes more help for residents facing sewage backups. Let’s hope they stick to it. | COMMENTARY

Craig Bettenhausen in 2019 at the Church of the Guardian Angel in Remington looking at items that might be salvageable in the church basement after its third sewage backup in a few months.
Craig Bettenhausen in 2019 at the Church of the Guardian Angel in Remington looking at items that might be salvageable in the church basement after its third sewage backup in a few months. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

At a recent public hearing, acting director of the Department of Public Works Matthew Garbark outlined plans to improve the city’s response to dangerous basement sewage backups that impact thousands of Baltimoreans a year. As organizations that have been working on this issue for years, we applaud these proposed changes — but we’ll believe it when we see it.

As many city residents know, Baltimore’s infrastructure is aging and crumbling. Our pipes are old and leaky, with cracks that cause raw sewage to seep into our streams and rivers every day. When it rains, the problems become even more apparent as sewage erupts out of venting stacks and structured overflow points along our stream banks. Even worse for public health, these problems make untreated wastewater back up into homes throughout the city.

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These sewage backups can cost thousands of dollars to address, from cleanup and disinfection to property damage, not to mention other potential costs such as illness, trauma and lost work days. Backups are happening disproportionately in predominantly Black neighborhoods, according to an analysis by a Johns Hopkins graduate student Clean Water Action partnered with. This means that sewage backups are not only a public health crisis, they are yet another example of environmental racism in this city.

In 2018, the city launched a federally-mandated pilot Expedited Reimbursement Program to help residents cover the cost of cleaning up sewage backups in their homes while the larger infrastructure upgrades are underway. But two years in, there are serious problems with the reimbursement program’s design and administration. In the first year of the reimbursement program, between April 2018 and March 2019, there were 4,632 reported sewage backups into buildings, but the Department of Public Works processed only 74 applications to the Expedited Reimbursement Program. And the people who applied faced enormous barriers to approval, for reasons like untimely reporting or a disputed cause of the backup. In that year, the city approved only 10 applications for reimbursement, a 14% acceptance rate.

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During the July 28th investigative hearing on this issue, Mr. Garbark described immediate changes to the expedited reimbursement program that will make it easier for residents to receive the help they need: eliminating the requirement that residents must report sewage backups to 311 within 24 hours, and increasing the maximum reimbursement from $2,500 to $5,000 per backup. These changes are necessary. In the program’s first year, 34% of applicants were denied simply because they did not report their backup on time, blocking residents from receiving desperately needed financial assistance.

Mr. Garbark also described the process DPW is undertaking to secure contracts for direct cleanup assistance for residents who experience backups. This is a critical change that will safeguard public health — many people have been cleaning up raw sewage in their basements themselves because they cannot afford expensive professional cleaning services. Raw sewage contains dangerous bacteria and pathogens, and since COVID-19 could be transmitted through sewage, these backups are more dangerous now than ever before. Baltimore could learn from our neighbors in Washington, D.C., Cincinnati, Ohio, and other communities that dispatch crews to clean up sewage backups as soon as possible at no cost to residents and protect public health in an equitable manner.

Finally, DPW said they are working to expand the reimbursement program to apply to backups that occur in any weather conditions, not just wet weather. This will enable more people to qualify for the program: 43% of applicants in the first year were denied because DPW stated the backup was not caused by rain, even though some occurred during rainstorms, according to Blue Water Baltimore’s analysis. Lack of clarity around how DPW made these decisions has been a major problem, and removing this restriction is the only option to equitably help residents.

While we are pleased with these proposed changes, DPW must do an enormous amount of outreach to ensure residents are aware of the enhanced program. The agency will also need to overcome trust hurdles of its own creation; many residents have applied for this program and been denied over the last two years. For the improved reimbursement and new cleanup assistance programs to work, Baltimore residents need to know that they are an option, and believe that they will actually help.

In the midst of a global pandemic, economic crisis and enduring racial oppression, no Baltimore resident should have to face the additional stress, trauma and cost of cleaning up other people’s sewage in their home. We look forward to working with the City Council, mayor and DPW to ensure these improvements are made as quickly as possible to protect public health.

Alice Volpitta (avolpitta@bluewaterbaltimore.org) is Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper and Jennifer Kunze (jkunze@cleanwater.org)is Maryland program manager at Clean Water Action.

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