Baltimore has until next week to respond to an order from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Maryland Department of the Environment requiring the city to expand the scope of a program that provides cleanup assistance to people who have experienced sewage backups in their homes.
The city program, called the Sewage Onsite Support Cleanup Program, sends third-party contractors to clean and disinfect houses after the backups — when sewage flows backward and comes into a home through, for example, a sink or a toilet — at no cost to residents.
The program only assists people who experience “wet weather” backups, which happen when rainwater gets into a sewer line and causes it to overflow.
Under the order, the city will have to assist any sewage backup caused by problems in the city-owned portion of the pipe system, according to a joint press release from several environmental advocacy organizations, including Blue Water Baltimore and Clean Water Action.
“Now, anybody who experiences a sewage backup that’s caused either in part, or in full, by a problem in the city-owned portion of the system, is eligible for this cleanup assistance, rain or shine,” Alice Volpitta, the Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper at Blue Water Baltimore, said during an interview Thursday. “That is a huge deal, because that means that thousands more people every year won’t have to shell out money, out of pocket, to clean up that sewage.”
The advocacy organizations noted “wet weather” backups only make up a small portion of all sewer backups.
From 2018 to 2021, there were at least 8,860 sewage backups in Baltimore caused at least somewhat by the city-owned portion of the pipe system, according to a 2021 report from the Baltimore City Department of Public Works.
During the same time period, the groups said, only 34 people received city assistance, largely because many didn’t meet the eligibility requirements.
Jay Apperson, a spokesperson for the Maryland Department of the Environment, said sewage backups “present serious health risks, and the necessary cleanups place an undue financial burden on residents.”
A spokesperson for DPW did not respond to a request for comment.
As part of the terms of a modified consent decree with the EPA and MDE, the city launched the Sewage Onsite Support Cleanup Program in early 2021 as a one-year pilot.
The federal and state agencies approved making the program permanent, but ordered the city to expand its scope, according to a May letter from the EPA outlining the order.
The city has until July 21 to respond to the May order, according to Volpitta, and must broaden the program and resubmit its long-term plan to the agencies.
There is a possibility the city could petition the judge that is overseeing the consent decree to toss the order, Volpitta said.
But in their press release, advocates urged “the city to quickly implement a robust program to implement this recommendation and ensure that every household facing a sewage backup from city infrastructure is able to access emergency assistance.”