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Baltimore City starts pilot program to provide cleanup services to residents after sewage backups

Baltimore City has started a yearlong pilot program to provide free cleanup services to residents when sewage backs up into their homes.

Advocates applauded the program during a City Council hearing Wednesday, as it marks the first time the city is providing contractors to help clean dangerous sewage overflows, rather than simply reimbursement.

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But many felt the program, called Sewage Onsite Support, didn’t go far enough.

For instance, residents can only access the service if their sewage backup occurred during a “wet-weather event” that causes sewer lines to surcharge or overflow. At least a quarter-inch of precipitation has to fall within 24 hours, causing the sewer system to reach capacity.

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Advocates say the city should handle cleanup even in dry weather, not least because those backups could result from backups in the city’s main line.

But regardless of who’s at fault, the home backups put homeowners’ health at risk, and the city ought to be providing emergency services, said Alice Volpitta, Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper with Blue Water Baltimore.

“Sewage backups pose a clear threat to individual and public health, but that risk doesn’t go away just because of sewage backup is caused by something other than rain,” Volpitta said. “If anything, dry weather sewage backups are actually more dangerous because they aren’t diluted by stormwater.”

Advocates say the city’s program, especially if expanded, could correct an equity issue: Those who can afford to pay thousands of dollars to a professional cleaning service and wait to see if they’ll be reimbursed will do so, and those who can’t will be forced to address the contaminated floodwaters themselves.

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But to do so, the program has to be better advertised, elected officials and advocates said Wednesday.

Last fiscal year, the city’s existing reimbursement program for wet-weather events fielded 22 applications. Only two were approved, and a bit more than $1,000 doled out.

Meanwhile, though, the city’s 311 database shows more than 7,000 calls in 2020 for “sewer water in basement.”

A Department of Public works official said that sometimes applications are denied because they are not sent in within 90 days of the backup. Other times it’s because the backup wasn’t caused by a deluge of rainwater, but rather a blockage or other issue. Previously, a significant chunk of applications were tossed out because residents didn’t call 311 to report their backup within 24 hours, but that requirement has since been removed.

That program was mandated as part of the city’s consent decree to improve its aged sewer system, which routinely discharged excess waste into streams and other waterways, in violation of the federal Clean Water Act.

Over the past four years, Baltimore has spent about $240,000 to cover 292 claims where officials determined the city was negligent in how it responded to a backup, officials said during Wednesday’s hearing.

Cherring Spence, president of the Park Heights Neighborhood Association, said during Wednesday’s hearing that she has experienced sewage backups on several occasions. Most recently, in late February, about a foot of sewer water accumulated in her basement, destroying all of her belongings.

“I‘m a senior citizen. And it is not easy to come in and replace things that you have spent your whole life trying to acquire, and see them go up in just a matter of few minutes,” Spence said.

She could see tampons, toilet paper and tissues could be seen floating in the muck. Spence said she called the city so that they could send an inspector, but waited for days before someone came to investigate, and then was able to clean up the mess.

“It is not enough to just deal with people who are suffering loss because of a weather or wet-related backup, you have thousands of people that are losing everything,” she said.

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