Baltimore has refused to comply with a directive from state and federal environmental regulators that it expand the scope of a program that helps residents clean up after sewage backs up into their homes.

Efforts to help residents cope with sewage backups go back to a consent decree the city signed in 2002 with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Maryland Department of the Environment after Baltimore was found to have violated the Clean Water Act by discharging sewage into rivers and the Chesapeake Bay.

The city’s failure to stem those sewage discharges by 2016, coupled with a large number of backups into people’s homes around the same time, led to the modified consent decree in 2017, which required Baltimore City to set aside $2 million to assist homeowners with cleanup costs related to sewage backups into their homes and basements.

The city began a direct reimbursement program, providing residents with up to $5,000 in cleanup and disinfection costs after backups related to heavy rainfall, flooding and other so-called wet weather events. But the program remained abysmally underutilized because it only applied in wet weather and was managed with overly stringent eligibility requirements.

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Since 2017, the city has never come close to spending the $2 million it was required to budget for cleanups in the modified consent decree.

In 2021, the city launched a pilot program called Sewage Onsite Support (SOS), which directly paid third-party vendors to clean up and disinfect homes after overburdened sewer pipes caused sewage to flow backward and enter homes through toilets and sinks.

Advocates and residents lauded the effort but urged the city to expand its scope beyond the wet weather events and include backups caused by blockages and cracks in pipes, a more pervasive problem owing to decades of neglect and disinvestment.

A 2021 report from the Baltimore City Department of Public Works counted at least 8,860 sewage backups in the city from 2018 to 2021, caused in part by the city-owned and managed portion of the pipe system.

In January 2022, the city submitted a plan to the EPA and the MDE proposing to continue only the Sewage Onsite Support (SOS) program on a long-term basis, with benefits limited to backups caused by wet weather.

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But in May, the EPA, while approving the city’s proposal to continue with the SOS program, disagreed with limiting benefits to wet weather and said the $2 million in cleanup assistance must be provided for all backups, including the more common variety that result from clogged and cracked sewage lines. “The SOS program must address all backups that originate in the sewer mainline,” the agency responded in a letter.

The city refused last week and, responding by the EPA’s July 21 deadline, said that expanding cleanup benefits as the EPA described went beyond requirements of the modified consent decree.

In an emailed statement, Alexaundria Leonard, a spokesperson for the Baltimore Department of Public Works, said that the department had met EPA’s deadline and responded in accordance with the consent decree. The department, she said, “will continue to engage with the EPA where necessary.”

Jay Apperson, deputy director with the Maryland Department of the Environment’s Office of Communications, said that sewage backups presented serious health risks, and the necessary cleanups place an undue financial burden on residents. “We will work in partnership with city leaders and our federal partners to protect the environment, as well as homeowners and their families,” he said, adding that the decision to expand cleanup benefits was made jointly by the EPA and the MDE.

“Baltimore City’s program to address the cost of cleaning sewage backups into buildings should cover not only those that are capacity-related, but also any that originate in the sewer main line,” he said, and can be caused by blockage and cracks in sewer pipes, even in dry weather.

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A 2019 study of the health impacts of sewage backups into residents’ homes documented many diseases associated with fecal matter in wastewater, which often flooded residents’ homes and basements as a result of a sewage backup. It said that raw sewage contained pathogens such as bacteria, viruses and parasites, which can be particularly harmful when residents are forced to undertake the cleanup themselves.

The study warned that several groups are likely to be more susceptible to illnesses resulting from exposure to raw sewage, including pregnant women and children, because of weakened or underdeveloped immune systems. “Those who are immunocompromised are also more at risk than the average adult,” it said.

Climate change is causing increased precipitation and flooding, factors that city officials now have to take into account when thinking about the future performance of the sewer system, the study, “Residential Sewage Backups in Baltimore City,” said.

“If the city is not accounting for these future changes, overflows and breaks in pipes due to pressure in the system may be an upcoming reality,” the study cautioned.

Quoting 2021 statistics, the EPA said that there was an annual average of 4,400 reported backups — ranging from 3,972 to 5,745 per year — between 2017 and 2021. Because of the limited scope of the city’s cleanup program, the EPA said, less than 20% of backups qualified for the SOS program, which provided only $21,019 in assistance from 2018 to 2022.

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“This is well under the $2 million dollars per year that Baltimore is supposed to allocate each year to the program,” the EPA’s letter said, adding that Baltimore could easily cover more claims and more backups that occur in all types of weather and result from pipe blockages.

In its July 21 letter, the city dismissed the EPA’s recommendations and said that no part of the consent decree “requires expansion of the program in the manner the EPA seeks.”

The city said that while the consent decree required the city to dedicate an annual budget of $2 million to sewage cleanup efforts for residents, the city is not bound to spend the entire amount each year.

Alice Volpitta, Baltimore Harbor waterkeeper with Blue Water Baltimore, rejected the city’s argument. “We’re very disappointed that the city has chosen not to expand the scope of its assistance programs to more Baltimore City residents, because the agencies have been very clear in their intent in their letter.”

She said that the joint order by the EPA and the MDE clearly asked the city not to limit the long-term program to capacity-related backups. “The last thing I want to see is this issue get tied up in the courts again, because Baltimore City residents are dealing with this issue every single day,” she said. “They can’t afford to wait and they can’t afford to wait out a lengthy court battle. So, we want the city to do the right thing and expand the scope of the program immediately.”

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Jennifer Kunze, Maryland program coordinator with Clean Water Action, called the city’s refusal to abide by the EPA’s order “completely unacceptable.”

“The city really needs to expand the program the way the EPA has ordered,” she said. “And that’s the important thing, not the original scope of the modified consent decree.” She said that residents and members of the City Council have been demanding this change for a long time.

Kunze said that in July 2020, Matthew Garbark, then acting director of DPW, announced that the department was working with law department and the finance department to consider expanding the program from wet-weather to any-weather backups.

“It’s completely unacceptable that the city is challenging the EPA order, and DPW needs to listen to the calls of the residents and do the right thing,” Kunze said.

This story is published in partnership with Inside Climate News, a nonprofit, independent news organization that covers climate, energy and the environment. Sign up for the ICN newsletter here.

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