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Baltimore Admits to Mistakes in Sewage Project, But Refuses to Help Victims

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Tom Pelton
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Privately, officials at the Baltimore Department of Public Works have been candid that they made a major mistake in a federally-mandated, billion-dollar project to upgrade the city’s leaky and overwhelmed sewer system.

By closing off 60 sewage outfalls before they increased the capacity of the system, city contractors caused sewage to overflow into hundreds or potentially thousands of city homes during rain storms, flooding basements with human waste.

"We didn’t really know the right order to do things in, necessarily," said Dana Cooper, general counsel for the city department, speaking in her office in November.   "And so when we closed those other 60 overflows that actually increased the number of basement backups that we saw in the city. Again, because the sewage has to go somewhere."

In public, however, city officials have taken a different position on who’s at fault for the rash of sewage floods in homes.  Almost 5,000 city residents reported backups last year. City and federal officials often blame the victims in Baltimore and suggest that the city ratepayers are negligent by throwing things like carpets, shoes and sanitary napkins into the sewer system.

  

In contrast to what she said in her office, in a public meeting on the sewage issue last week (June 7) at the Maryland Department of the Environment, Cooper and other government officials didn’t admit any mistakes and instead emphasized bad behavior by the public.

"There are multiple causes of basement backups.  There are capacity problems, there are maintenance problems," Cooper told the crowd of city residents.  "There are also problems on the private side that are not within the city’s area.  So if homeowners are putting things down their drain like grease that don’t belong there. If you are not maintaining the private side of the line, that can also cause a basement backup."

Over the three years preceding last July, the city refused or failed to pay 91 percent of the 413 claims from residents for financial damage to their homes from sewage backups, according to city records. This was despite the fact that the city was sued by the U.S. Justice Department in 2002 because its structurally inadequate sewer system overflowed so much.

The city has tripled local water and sewer rates and collected more than a billion dollars for sewage upgrade work over the last 14 years.  But the city has completed only about a third of the sewer system improvement projects required by a federal consent decree by a January deadline, according to the city’s briefing at last week’s meeting.

So far, the city has closed off 60 of the 75 sewage outfalls that dump waste into the Jones Falls, Inner Harbor and other urban waterways.  Earlier, the city reported that it had closed 60 of 62 outfalls. But then it admitted that figure was not accurate because it had found another 13 outfalls that it plans to keep open for sewage dumping for up to another six years.

During the meeting last week, state and federal officials explained that they have proposed a revision to the city’s sewage consent decree that will give the city another 14 years to complete what will eventually be a two billion dollar sewer upgrade project.

Some of the residents who attended the meeting said they were outraged that the city has not set up any kind of relief and cleanup fund, especially for poor and elderly residents whose homes have been damaged by the city’s poorly-planned sewer work.

"I definitely don’t think you can blame it on the residents," said Derrick Lennon of Northwest Baltimore, whose basement was flooded with human waste.  "The frustration is that there have been a number of people who have been going through this for a number of years.  And they don’t see any recourse.  You have communities that have been dealing with this problem for 10 to 12 years, but yet their insurance companies as well as the city have done nothing to assist them."

Kim Trueheart, a resident of the Howard Park neighborhood, complained:   "You know, already we’ve spent over a billion dollars.  How many more billions do we have to spend before residents get the relief that everybody has talked about here?"

Public works director Rudy Chow and other city officials tried to reassure residents that the city’s planned construction of a new pumping station and a pair of holding tanks near the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant should stop 82 percent of the overflows by 2021 and reduce the fecal bacteria in city streams and the Inner Harbor.

But that good news won’t help the homeowners who fear the septic flood that wash over them with the next rainfall.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.