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Baltimore Denies Help To 86% Of Sewage Flood Victims

Tom Pelton

Almost four years ago, the sewers of Baltimore erupted in a scandal.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Maryland Department of the Environment had sued the city to force it to fix its leaky and overwhelmed sewer system and stop discharging raw waste into the Inner Harbor and urban streams.

The Baltimore Department of Public Works more than tripled water and sewer rates, but mismanaged the sewer system upgrade project. City workers shut down sewage outfall pipes before it increased the capacity of the system. This caused raw waste to erupt into the basements of hundreds of homes.

Natasza Bock-Singleton, a community leader and mother of three from southwest Baltimore, described what these sewage floods are like during a public hearing on the problem Monday at the Maryland Department of the Environment.  She said her home suffered more than $25,000 in damage from three sewage floods.

“It’s a geyser of human waste,” said Bock-Singleton. “And just to clarify – it doesn't happen when it starts to rain. There is a little bit of a lull.  You have a rain storm, and you think you might have a problem, so you go in your basement and you wait and you watch (the toilet) and you put everything else on hold.  And there is a little gurgle, so you call 311, and just as the rain stops, and the sun comes out, and the birds chirp, and rainbows come, then the geyser of human waste comes up.”

Often, when the owners of those homes – many of them elderly and lower income -- applied to the city for help and financial assistance to clean up the mess, the city denied the claims – rejecting 91 percent of the 413 appeals for help from 2012 through 2015. These denials came even though often it was – in fact – often the city’s fault because of the city’s poor maintenance and management of the pipes, according to an investigation by the Environmental Integrity Project.

Those denials of assistance sparked outrage when they were first reported back in 2016.  In response, EPA and Maryland’s environmental agency on October 6, 2017, forced Baltimore to sign a revised sewage consent decree that compelled the city to do more to help sewage flood victims by making $2 million a year available in a new, pilot “expedited reimbursement program.”

That new pilot program concluded its first year in April.  And a new report by the city Baltimore Department of Public Works documents that the city continues to deny claims by 86 percent of applicants for assistance, often for procedural reasons – like the fact that flood victims often don’t notify the city within 24 hours.  Of the $2 million annually budgeted for the assistance, the city only wrote checks for $15,000 in claims in the program’s first year, denying 64 out of 74 appeals for help, according to city records.

Sean Stinnett is president of the West Arlington Improvement Association. He said that 75 to 100 of his fellow residents of West Baltimore suffered sewage floods over the last five years. The victims included his mother, who is in her 70’s and has filed three claims for help with the city, all of which were rejected.

“It’s very frustrating,” said Stinnett. “Because I know there are probably a number of undocumented residents in West Arlington that said, look, I’m not going to apply because I don’t want to get denied and I already know what the outcome is going to be.”

State and city officials who listened to these complaints during Monday’s hearing said are looking at ways to improve the reimbursement program. 

A good start would be for the city to start with the presumption that Baltimore has an obligation to help homeowners deal with a real public health threat caused by its own neglect of its sewer system. Public servants should not be blaming victims and looking for technical excuses to not assist people.

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.