‘Not acceptable’: Baltimore City Council pushes for action on sewage backups, lagging reimbursement program

Thank you for supporting our journalism. This article is available exclusively for our subscribers, who help fund our work at The Baltimore Sun.

Craig Bettenhausen is terrified every time it rains.

After a storm, the junior warden knows what might await him at North Baltimore’s Church of the Guardian Angel: a putrid stench and gray-brown bubbling waste coating the basement floors.


Three times since August, the church has experienced sewage backups, wreaking damage across the lower levels of a historic building that congregants turn to for peace. The mess halted operations in the building’s thrift shop, the profits from which help fund the church’s food pantry.

“It’s not acceptable for the city’s system to just dump sewage into the basements of homes and businesses and churches every time there’s a hard rain,” Bettenhausen said.


Church members and others affected by these frequent backups rallied Wednesday outside City Hall and, hoisting poop-shaped posters with messages like “Sewage Stinks,” demanded accountability. Inside, City Council members pressed local agencies on what is being done to stop toilets and drains from overflowing with raw sewage.

“It’s not acceptable for the city’s system to just dump sewage into the basements of homes and business and churches every time there’s a hard rain.”

—  Craig Bettenhausen, junior warden at North Baltimore’s Church of the Guardian Angel

“If we’re going to restore faith in government,” City Councilman Kristerfer Burnett said, “we have to get the basic things right.”

According to Department of Public Works reports, roughly 7,400 backups were reported to 311 between October 2017 and March 2019 — a number that likely doesn’t capture the true number of incidents. Backups can occur when excess stormwater floods into the city’s aging pipes, which then overflow into people’s homes and other buildings, causing damage and health risks.

Last spring, the city launched a $2 million pilot program that was supposed to help pay for home repairs stemming from sewage backups.

The program offers up to $2,500 in reimbursement for sewage cleanup costs — but very few people know the fund exists, and even fewer have benefited from it. The city has doled out about $15,000 total from the fund.

“Isn’t that disturbing to you all?” City Councilman Leon Pinkett demanded of a Department of Public Works official. “At what point do you go, ‘Why aren’t people calling us?’ ”

A recent city report shows roughly 70 residents applied for reimbursement since the program launched in April 2018, but the city approved only 10 of those requests. In two dozen cases, applications were denied because residents did not notify the city of a backup within the first 24 hours. Others were denied after it was determined the backups were caused by clogs involving roots, rags or other debris.

It’s been a “massive disappointment,” Clean Water Action’s Jennifer Kunze said of the fund during the hearing.


Burnett, a Democrat who called for the hearing, said he has encouraged his constituents to apply after they endured a sewage backup. “Every single one of them was denied,” he said.

Maryland Policy & Politics


Keep up to date with Maryland politics, elections and important decisions made by federal, state and local government officials.

Bettenhausen’s church isn’t covered by the program at all.

Department of Public Works deputy director Matthew Garbark emphasized to the council that the city’s reimbursement program is a pilot. And a department spokeswoman pledged that DPW would do more to spread information about the funding that’s available to residents.

“We’re always willing to look at new ideas,” Garbark said, “and work with those to try and get something right.”

Council members said they want to improve the reimbursement program, as well as explore other steps the city can take to help people who have dealt with sewage backups. A lawyer who worked on a similar problem in Cincinnati video-conferenced into Wednesday night’s hearings to discuss ways his city goes further than Baltimore, including setting residents up with contractors at no charge so people don’t feel like they have to clean up hazardous waste themselves.

Advocates told the council that city crews should help residents get rid of the sewage in their homes.


Until then, Bettenhausen and others have had to pull on rubber boots and gloves to deal with the sewage themselves.

Baltimore Sun reporter Scott Dance contributed to this article.