Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Backups of Baltimore

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.
Nasty, but how did Baltimore's Clean Harbor Mandate contribute to the mess?
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.
Now this is a real social justice issue. Do you imagine this is happening in the nice, expensive areas of Baltimore?

I would say unintended consequences are a bitch, but it's not clear these consequences were unintended. Meanwhile, the state continues to collect a Bay Restoration Tax, designed to fix aging sewage systems.

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