Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Poorly planned and weakly enforced infrastructure repairs have created a vicious cycle.
On three back-to-back mornings last week, Angela Valdez walked down to the basement bathroom of her Baltimore row house and found it filled with poop.
Her toilet had been backed up with wastewater on and off since heavy rains in late April. Now, after weeks of attempts to get public works to clear a massive blockage in a city sewer line, she was facing standing sewage in her toilet and tub.
“It smelled about as nasty as you'd imagine, but the sight of it was worse,” the 38-year-old private investigator tells CityLab. “Brown clumps in brown water... and you think about what that actually is… Yech.”
Valdez and her next-door neighbor were unable to bathe, do laundry, wash dishes, or use any toilet without their basement pipes spattering out even more waste. She’d filed a 311 request on May 10, and a parade of city workers had come to assess the backup and pump her toilet out. But this had done nothing to fix the blockage. In fact, at one point, workers put so much pressure on the pipes that it “shot poop all over the floor in my basement,” says Valdez.
Valdez is not alone. Other Baltimoreans have horror stories of sewage rising two feet high and “geysers” of waste spewing from toilets. Some homeowners have described wading through sludge with garbage bags wrapped around their legs to clean their basements themselves. The property damage can run into thousands of dollars—and lead insurance companies to deny claims or even drop policies. And, perhaps needless to say, it’s a health hazard.
Meanwhile, the city does not approve the vast majority of homeowners’ claims for compensation, and frequently does not help physically clean up the mess.
“At least my husband and I have some resources,” says Valdez. “I can’t imagine being poor with young children and dealing with this.”
Other nearby municipalities, such as Baltimore, Montgomery, and Prince George’s counties, help residents clean backed-up basements without regard to whose fault the problem is, or on whose property it lies.
In some ways, the story of Baltimore’s sewers is a familiar entry in the national story of deferred infrastructure maintenance. But it also uniquely encapsulates how those lagging repairs, combined with the difficulties of enforcing environmental regulations, are a vicious cycle. One infrastructure problem has literally led to another.
Clean harbor or clean housing?
Basement sewage backups aren’t a new problem in Baltimore, nor in other American cities with aging wastewater systems. But they’re far more acute in Charm City than they used to be. According to data provided by the city of Baltimore to the Baltimore Sun, DPW crews responded to nearly 5,000 reports of sewage in city basements in 2015, compared to 622 in 2004.
Though the city isn’t directly responsible for every household sewage backup, there is an overarching explanation for the decade’s uptick in soiled basements that implicates the city. It’s the result of Baltimore’s stalled efforts to stop sewage from flowing into its Inner Harbor and the Chesapeake Bay.
By design, and to the detriment of the environment, the city’s aging sewer system has long released sewage directly into those waterbodies when it is overloaded by heavy rain. (The city’s stormwater and sewer lines are separate, but rain still gets into sewers through cracks and holes.) In 2002, Baltimore entered a consent decree with federal and state environmental regulators to stop this dumping. Since then, it has closed 60 of its 62 sewage-dumping relief valves, and undertaken a number of major repairs. To pay for it, Baltimore officials have more than doubled sewer-service rates over that time.
Yet the city continues to release sewage through the remaining two valves, and is now past the consent decree’s original deadline to eliminate those overflows (January 1, 2016). On top of that, the lack of relief valves—plus a major blockage recently discovered at the city’s main treatment plant—has meant that when the sewage system is inundated, waste has nowhere to go except exactly where people don’t want it to be: Namely, city basements.
This has created what is almost an either-or situation: Either Baltimore gets to have a clean, safe harbor, or it gets to have clean, safe housing.
David Flores, the Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper with Blue Water Baltimore, says that federal and state regulators have not diligently enforced the consent decree to keep the city on track. “The city set out to undertake all of this stuff over 14 years ago, and they didn't do it,” he says. “The regulators didn’t hold the city accountable, and as early as 2013, they were working to extend the timeline.“
According to EPA representatives, the EPA did levy more than $1 million in fines on the city for sewage overflow violations between 2009 and 2013, according to a report by the Environmental Integrity Project. But as I’ve reported before, it’s exceedingly common for environmental regulations to fail, because the state and feds don’t really have very strong leverage to “crack down” on violators. Fines and threats often aren’t all that effective:
Fines take away public funds that could be directed towards compliance; they essentially encourage more violations, not less. And because local public utilities are often monopoly providers of essential services, regulator threats to revoke their licenses are often empty ones. It’s not like the EPA can shut down the city of Baltimore[.]
One thing regulators could definitely do is make the city’s violations more public, which critics have complained they haven’t. Meanwhile, the harbor is still getting soiled with human waste and industrial toxins, and city basements are, too. As that report by the Environmental Integrity Project points out, basement backups can only further erode the city’s already fragile tax base by devaluing properties and even forcing homeowners to abandon their homes, which Flores says has happened. Meanwhile, polluting the harbor drags down the potential of one of its strongest economic engines.
No comprehensive plan
And yet, the city hasn’t released a comprehensive plan, timeline, or budget to resolve its sewage woes. It has spent about $700 million on consent decree-related repairs so far, and reportedly needs about as much more to complete them. The longer it takes, the higher these costs will grow, and the longer Baltimore residents will flush in fear.
Kurt Kocher, a spokesperson for the Baltimore Department of Public Works, says that once the clog at the treatment plant is resolved the city will be able to close the two relief valves. “When that is fixed, that takes care of the backup problem, too,” he tells CityLab. He estimates that will take four years.
But those plans are outside the repairs required by the consent decree. Baltimore, the EPA, and the Maryland Department of the Environment are now renegotiating that agreement, which will likely lay out “as much as a decade of further sewer repairs,” according to the Sun. The city and the EPA are keeping mum on the details so far. (As of the MDE had not returned requests for comment.)
Flores wonders if there will be anything in the new decree that addresses the backup problem. “From my perspective, this is most critical aspect of the sewer overflow challenge in Baltimore, when you consider the objective of the Clean Water Act,” he says. “It's to protect the public from water pollution.”
Alison Prost, the Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, suggested to the Sun that the EPA could use the money that it raises from penalties on the city to help residents clean up their soiled basements.
Kocher would not comment on the negotiations, or say if they would mention the backups. He did say that the revisions would be made public soon, and that, in the meantime, “It is our number one priority to make sure that citizens [dealing with backups] are taken care of properly.”
“Why doesn’t someone do the whole thing right once?”
Last Tuesday, revolted and frustrated, Valdez wrote about her situation to her city council member, Mary Pat Clark. Clark contacted the Department of Public Works to underscore that her constituent had been living with backed-up sewage for a month as a result of broken city infrastructure. The next morning, a crew of workers arrived at Valdez’s house to finally clear the blocked pipe. They started digging. Then they hit an unmarked gas line. Once that was resolved, hours later, the workers were able to clear the blockage. Valdez and her neighbor can use their water without fear of a filthy overflow—for now, anyways. Valdez believes there’s still waste sediment lining her neighborhood’s sewer mains, and no clear plan about how to get it out of the way.
Baltimore’s mess of sewage problems should be a warning to hundreds of other municipalities, corporations, and individuals who navigating sewage-related court mandates—not to mention cities around the U.S. coming to terms with decades of an “out of sight, out of mind” infrastructure-maintenance ethos. Fixing big problems will never been simple, cheap, or quick. But fixes need to be planned—thoughtfully, carefully, holistically—so that one problem doesn’t simply replace another, and so that the public doesn’t suffer, arguably, even more.
“Why doesn’t someone investigate?” Valdez wonders. “Why doesn’t someone do the whole thing right once?”
In Baltimore and beyond, those are questions that demand answers.