For nearly a decade, Baltimore residents have been demanding that the City help people out when City infrastructure causes sewage to back up into people's homes. And this summer, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Maryland Department of the Environment are supporting residents' demands, ordering the City to start offering assistance to every household that faces a sewer backup caused by issues in City infrastructure.
What does this mean? EPA and MDE's order is within the context of the Modified Consent Decree, an agreement between the City and the regulatory agencies that outlines how the City will stop sewage flowing out of its sewage infrastructure. Under the initial orders of the Modified Consent Decree, the City was required to offer reimbursement of certain costs to households facing sewage backups, but only those caused by wet-weather surcharging, for a three-year pilot period of 2018-2021. After that point, the City had to submit a long-term plan for assisting with sewer backups. The City initially submitted a plan that would end the reimbursement program and replace it with the City's program to send clean-up crews to qualifying households free of charge, but continue restricting assistance for wet-weather sewage backups only, excluding ones that happen during dry weather. EPA and MDE responded by ordering the City to expand the program to cover all sewer backups that are caused by conditions in City-owned infrastructure. The City has until Friday, July 21, 2023 to respond: hopefully by submitting a revised plan that expands the program, but potentially by arguing against the order.
What will change? For the past two years, the City has maintained two programs for households to get assistance after certain kinds of sewage backups happen. For both, a household only qualifies if the Department of Public Works determines that the backup was caused by wet weather. This restriction automatically disqualifies 4 in 5 backups caused by conditions in the City's sewer system, and has meant that the City's two programs to assist households with sewer backups have helped almost no one. Between 2018 and 2021, there were at least 8,860 reported residential sewage backups in Baltimore caused at least partially by conditions in the city-owned portion of the pipe system, but only 34 households actually received any assistance through DPW's assistance programs - 6,933 households were automatically disqualified because their sewer backups happened during dry weather, even though they were caused by issues in the City's infrastructure. Under EPA and MDE's new order, all of these households will be eligible to get help.
The type of assistance residents can access will also change - and this change isn't so good. For two years, DPW has maintained two programs to assist residents after (qualifying) sewer backups happen. The Expedited Reimbursement Program was launched in 2018 and specifically required by the Modified Consent Decree; residents who apply for help and are accepted can get up to $5,000 in cleanup and disinfection costs reimbursed. The Sewage Onsite Support (SOS) Cleanup Program was launched in 2021 in response to resident demands and has operated alongside the reimbursement program for the past two years; when a resident calls 311 to report a sewer backup, the DPW inspector who responds is supposed to determine whether the household qualifies for assistance, then offer them a professional cleanup crew free of charge. Offering immediate, free assistance is much more helpful and equitable than offering reimbursement for such expensive costs. However, we have concerns about ending the reimbursement program. In instances where a household should have been offered support through the SOS program, but falls through the cracks in the process through no fault in their own - something residents have told us has happened - they should still be able to recoup their costs. We support continuing and expanding the SOS program, but we have significant concerns about eliminating the reimbursement program entirely.
How did we get here?
- Sewer backups increased dramatically in Baltimore between 2002 and 2016, the time period of the original Consent Decree to end sewer overflows, as the City closed off outflow points in the sewer system that had been designed to relieve pressure by letting sewage overflow into streams. (How? Read the details in CityLab: How Baltimore's Clean Harbor Mandate Filled People's Homes with Sewage.) A Baltimore Sun investigation in 2016 found that the number or sewer backups had baloooned from 622 in 2004 to nearly 5,000 in 2015. Meanwhile, residents who incurred tremendous costs from these sewer backups and tried to recoup their costs by filing claims with the City Law Department faced delays of over a year and their claims for reimbursement were often denied entirely, as a report by the Environmental Integrity Project found. During this time, DPW did not offer assistance to households facing sewer backups of any kind - despite admitting to WYPR that their own actions had exacerbated the problem.
- The City's original Consent Decree to end sewer overflows ended in 2016, but the work to end them was incomplete and sewer overflows continued. That meant the City had to negotiate a Modified Consent Decree to complete the work, and households who had suffered from sewer backups seized on the opportunity to demand help. Residents spoke out at hearings and community organizations held their own public meetings, demanding that the Modified Consent Decree require the City to help them. Ultimately, EPA and MDE used the Modified Consent Decree to require the City to launch a reimbursement program - but there were problems from the very beginning.
- When the Expedited Reimbursement Program launched in Spring 2018, we immediately began hearing from residents facing sewer backups that it wasn't helping them. Households were only eligible if they reported the backup to 311 within 24 hours and if their sewer backup was caused by wet weather, reimbursement was limited to $2,500, and very few households were hearing about the program in time to apply. We launched an organizing effort: presenting to over 60 community associations in the City about the program, and working with a Johns Hopkins School of Public Health student who demonstrated inequitable impacts: sewer backups were happening more in neighborhoods with more Black residents. This culminated with the City Council holding an investigatory hearing in Fall 2019: check out our full recap at the time here. Dozens of impacted residents testified, spoke to the media, or contacted the City Council, making it undeniable that the reimbursement program wasn't working.
- The City Council held a followup hearing in Summer 2020, at which DPW announced major changes: they would raise the cap on reimbursement from $2,500 to $5,000 per incident, and drop the requirement that households call 311 within 24 hours to be eligible for help. DPW also said they were working toward two more major changes that residents were demanding: to provide cleanup crews directly to residents free of charge, and to expand the program to cover dry weather backups too. Check out our full recap at the time here, and our op ed with Blue Water Baltimore in response to the announcement here.
- In Spring 2021, DPW launched the Sewer Onsite Support program to fulfill the promise of free, fast clean up crews after a backup - but backed away from expanding assistance to dry weather backups.
- In Summer 2021, we worked with Councilman Burnett and the rest of the City Council to pass a resolution calling on DPW to expand its assistance programs and report to the City Council on the feasibility of doing so. DPW's report, in Winter 2022, argued against expanding the assistance programs, on liability and cost grounds. We responded to those points in a joint report with Blue Water Baltimore in Fall 2022, arguing that neither were actually a barrier to helping more households, and the City Council held another public hearing to review DPW's report and our recommendations.
- Now, in Summer 2023, EPA and MDE have ordered Baltimore City to finally expand its assistance programs to cover all sewer backups caused by conditions in the City's infrastructure, whether in wet or dry weather - citing figures from the report the City Council requested in its arguments to do so. Read more in our joint press release and in the Baltimore Sun and Baltimore Banner.
All of this progress wouldn't have been possible over the years without the hard work of dozens of residents and supporters who had faced sewer backups in their homes and were willing to speak out publicly about it, and the work isn't finished. We're watching to see how Baltimore City responds to EPA and MDE's order, and we'll keep working to make sure that every household facing a sewer backup from City infrastructure can actually access the help they need in practice. If you have had a sewer backup or otherwise want to talk about getting involved, please contact us!