Sewage Backups in Baltimore

Heavy rainfall stresses all of our infrastructure: flooded transportation systems, leaking houses developing mold, inundated drinking water sources full of polluted runoff, and sewage systems letting rainwater leak in and sewage flow out. In Baltimore City, aged sewage infrastructure doesn't only cause millions of gallons of sewage to flood urban streams, or sinkholes to swallow city streets. It also causes toxic sewage to back up into residents' homes, putting their health and financial security in danger.

In 2002, Baltimore City finalized a Consent Decree outlining how it would conduct repairs, improvements, and maintenance on our sewage infrastructure to prevent the chronic sewage overflows into local streams that were fouling the Inner Harbor, contributing to overloads of key pollutants, and putting people in danger of contacting hazardous fecal bacteria. When the deadline for completing that work came in 2016, the city had made significant changes, but much more remained to do - and sewage overflows continued. In 2017, the City signed a Modified Consent Decree outlining how it would complete an initial phase of urgent repairs by 2021, and eliminate remaining sources of sewage overflows by 2030.

But over the period governed by the initial consent decree, backups of sewage into homes in Baltimore grew from a minor problem to a major hazard. According to an investigation by the Baltimore Sun, DPW crews responded to 622 sewage backups in their homes in 2004; by 2015, there were nearly 5,000. And although sewage backups can be caused by a variety of problems - from tree roots growing into a lateral sewer line, to individuals flushing inappropriate materials down the drain - many are caused by capacity issues, maintenance issues, or stormwater flooding into the sewer line through cracks and overwhelming it. (Read an analysis by CityLab here.) Closing sites where sewage overflowed into local streams even contributed to backups elsewhere: as DPW's General Counsel stated to WYPR in 2015, "when we closed those other 60 overflows that actually increased the number of basement backups that we saw in the city. Again, because the sewage has to go somewhere." And when residents filed legal claims with Baltimore City to recoup their costs - sometimes tens of thousands of dollars - their applications frequently sat unresolved for years or were denied. (Read analysis by our allies at the Environmental Integrity Project here.)

After years of outcry and organizing by people experiencing these problems, the 2017 Modified Consent Decree required the City to address this problem in its planning for repairs and maintenance (you can read our take on the Operations and Maintenance Plan here and on the Emergency Response Plan here) and by creating an Expedited Reimbursement Program: an option for people to be reimbursed more quickly and assuredly for their costs when sewage backed up into their home. But after its launch in April 2018, it became clear that there were too many restrictions in place for the program to meet the needs of people experiencing this problem. Although $2 million is available to city residents who experience a basement sewage back-up, they can only access these funds if the backup meets certain criteria (if it was caused by a rainstorm under a certain size, if there were not also rags and debris that contributed to the back-up), for certain costs (clean-up costs only, up to only $2,500, no lost or damaged property), and if the impacted person follows certain steps (calls 311 within 24 hours of the backup, finds and submits the application on time, provides receipts). By the annual Public Meeting in January 2019, only 10 households were successfully reimbursed through this program. That's 82% of the 67 households that applied - about a quarter of them rejected because the household did not call 311 within 24 hours of the backup occurring, and another quarter rejected because DPW inspectors also found debris in the pipe that, along with rain, may have contributed to the backup. The numbers show that this program is not helping the people in Baltimore City it was meant to help.

What you can do if a basement sewage back-up happens to you:

  1. Use 311 to report the problem right away. The City uses 311 reports to track where back ups are happening and prioritize repairs, and you must call 311 within 24 hours of the back up to be eligible for the Expedited Reimbursement Program.
  2. If possible, do not clean it yourself. Exposure to raw sewage is a significant health risk. Please contact professionals to clean it for you. If handling items contaminated with sewage is unavoidable, always wear gloves.
  3. Keep receipts for all cleaning costs and property damage. Providing records of the event is required under the Expedited Reimbursement Program and can be used to support a General Liability Claim.
  4. Apply for the Expedited Reimbursement Program - download the forms here. Baltimore City may reimburse you for up to $2,500 for cleaning costs, but there are some restrictions. Among other things, you must call 311 within 24 hours of the back up and submit your reimbursement application within 90 days. For more information, visit:
  5. Consider filing a General Liability Claim for additional cleanup costs and property damage - download the forms here.
  6. Contact us to share your story. We want to know what happened, how much it cost to clean and replace damaged items, whether you apply for city programs, and what happens when you do.