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Op-ed

Baltimore’s neglected infrastructure led to North Avenue sinkhole. Are there more to come? | GUEST COMMENTARY

Workers stand next to a sinkhole in the 700 block of E. North Avenue Tuesday afternoon as threatened homes are demolished. The roadway will be closed until repairs are made.

The sinkhole on North Ave that opened up last month and forced the demolition of multiple homes is only the latest example of what happens when we don’t properly invest in climate-resilient water infrastructure. As with the chronic issue of sewage backups into our homes, it’s far too easy to adopt an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude toward our underground infrastructure. The incident on North Ave is a reminder that what is hidden will not always stay buried.

As The Sun noted, the North Ave sinkhole was the result of a tunnel — built during the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt — being inundated with stormwater. As the climate crisis worsens and we experience more extreme rain events, the types of deluges that triggered this incident will only increase in frequency. The global effects of climate change vary by location, but the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report, coupled with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration most recent precipitation data release paints a grim picture for the mid-Atlantic region in particular. Baltimore’s old and crumbling infrastructure is not capable of handling the challenges of the 20th century, let alone the extreme weather events of the 21st.

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When excessive rainfall strikes the roofs and pavement that cover Baltimore City and much of the surrounding counties, it rushes into the underground pipes and directly into our streams, rivers, Harbor and, ultimately, the Chesapeake Bay. The sheer power and magnitude of those unrestrained stormwater flows are eating away the banks that border those streams and tearing apart those decrepit pipes from the inside out. The consequences are significant, from sinkholes threatening the structural integrity of homes to raw sewage backing up into basements. And these impacts are not felt equally. To use author Lawrence Brown’s formulation, the “white L” running down the 83 corridor and off toward Canton, has consistently received more money for infrastructure than the “Black Butterfly” that spreads its wings into East and West Baltimore, leaving a legacy of environmental racism that goes even deeper than the pipes.

The current approach to stormwater management is not cutting it. Baltimore City relies far too heavily on “alternative practices” like street sweeping to meet its legal requirements under its Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) permit. While street sweeping can help clear trash from storm drains, it does nothing to reduce the volume of water entering the system and overwhelming tunnels, like the one under North Ave. Instead, the city and county should both be prioritizing green stormwater infrastructure such as water-permeable pavement and rain gardens that absorb and filter stormwater, preventing flooding, erosion and, yes, sinkholes. The current MS4 permits aren’t doing enough to protect people and the environment, which is why Blue Water Baltimore is currently challenging them in court.

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Baltimore City must invest in its water and wastewater infrastructure, both to address current crises and to prepare the city for the changing climate. But residents and ratepayers shouldn’t have to shoulder these costs alone. The city should leverage state and federal resources through the American Rescue Plan Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to build, repair and maintain the infrastructure that Baltimoreans deserve. The state should create more incentives for green stormwater infrastructure in MS4 permit compliance, recognizing its numerous co-benefits and climate resilience, and the city should make these practices easier to implement by modifying its code.

Put together, these interventions and investments will help Baltimore build more sustainable infrastructure that can weather the storms of tomorrow. And more than anything, we can’t continue to turn a blind eye to the problems beneath the surface of our city. As the North Ave incident shows, they won’t stay buried forever.

Alice Volpitta (avolpitta@bluewaterbaltimore.org) is the Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper with Blue Water Baltimore.


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