Monday, June 10, 2024

Forget It Jake, It's Baltimore

 Annapolis Capital Gazette, Baltimore City Council asks DPW to pay up for home sewage overflows

Baltimore City Council members challenged the city’s refusal to pay for more sewage backups into residents’ homes during a hearing Monday, some arguing the city is hiding behind an “equity” argument as it challenges an order from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to do so.

The chiding came during a budget hearing for Baltimore’s Department of Public Works. Council members questioned how the department has been spending the $2 million it budgets annually to assist residents with cleaning up sewage backups. Currently, the city sends cleanup crews to Baltimore residents’ homes — or reimburses cleanup costs — only if a backup was caused by wet weather.

If a backup occurs due to some other kind of blockage during dry weather, such as a clogged or broken pipe, residents must handle the cleanup themselves. Those backups can be caused by residents dumping the wrong materials down their drains, such as grease or wipes, but also can occur for other reasons, like roots growing into a sewer line and causing a breakage.

Richard Luna, deputy director of the department, told the council Monday that $0 was paid in reimbursements in fiscal year 2023 despite residents submitting 27 applications. That same year, $77,000 was spent for the city to clean 11 homes. In fiscal year 2024, 33 residents applied for reimbursements, but only three have received funds, totaling about $14,800. An additional $43,700 was spent to clean four properties.

“There’s a $2 million allocation for that program, and what we’ve seen year-over-year is a very small amount of, number of households approved for this initiative,” Councilman Kristerfer Burnett said in response. “That’s hard to grasp considering we’ve had thousands of backups per year.”

Luna said the definition of a “qualified event” is very narrow. “That’s why you do see the numbers,” he said.

The EPA — which oversees Baltimore’s management of its troubled sewer system under a court-monitored consent decree — has called on the city to expand the number of backups it assists with, a directive the city has challenged. In May 2023, the agency issued an order calling on Baltimore to also cover certain dry-weather events, including backups that occur in sewer mainlines, which are managed by the city. The Maryland Department of the Environment agreed with the federal agency’s determination.

In a July 2023 letter to the agency, Baltimore argued it should not have to expand the program and took issue with the EPA’s reasoning, calling it “inconsistent” with the consent decree.

So they have a couple of million bucks set aside in their budget to help people whose houses are flooded with shit, and they only manage to use a fraction of that. I'd ask where the rest of the money goes, but then, it's Baltimore, so it probably went down a sewer.  

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