To city officials who say Baltimore has gotten better at compensating citizens after basement sewer overflows, Natasza Bock-Singleton offers a snort of derision – and the story of the geyser of human waste that fouled her basement on Labor Day weekend last year.
“I literally had poo coming out of the basement toilet and sink. It was just terrible,” said Bock-Singleton. “You feel helpless. This horrible brown water gurgles up and you can’t do anything about it.”
She and a dozen neighbors in her Southwest Baltimore neighborhood had the same horrifying experience that weekend but when they sought reimbursement from the city – for the clean-up, repairs, ruined rugs, furniture, family Bibles and important documents – all of them were turned down.
“They told us it was a twig or something in the main sewer line and not an official sanitary sewer overflow, but, I mean, it was on the city side,” she said. “They just used that as an excuse.”
“You feel helpless. This horrible brown water gurgles up and you can’t do anything about it.”
As president of the Violetville-St. Agnes Community Association, Bock-Singleton knew about the city-funded reimbursement program for basement back-up victims set up following years of citizen complaints and under pressure from state and federal agencies.
The “Expedited Reimbursement Program” was created as part of the Modified Consent Decree the city signed in 2017 in federal court that requires it to fix its aged sewer system and stop the surges of raw sewage that flow into local waterways. (The “modified” refers to the fact that the city failed over the previous 14 years to end the pollution and got the deadline pushed into the future.)
Bock-Singleton warned her residents not to get caught by the requirement that complaints must be made to 311 within 24 hours. (When several were initially rejected on that basis, she helped the residents to go back and document that they had made their complaint in time.)
In the end it didn’t matter – no one got a check.
Her conclusion after the neighborhood’s experience with this program: “It’s no better than before.”
Most Claims Still Rejected
That’s pretty much the conclusion as well of the Environmental Integrity Project after it reviewed a newly released report on the consent decree to be discussed at a meeting this Monday at Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) headquarters.
The Department of Public Works’ Quarterly Calendar Report (covering the quarter ending June 30, 2019) is part of its requirement to show Baltimore’s progress towards complying with the decree it signed with MDE and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The report shows that Baltimore has only approved 14% of the applications for reimbursements for damage caused by sewage overflows.
The Brew’s review of the data shows 10 approvals out of 74 applications by residents from January 2018 through March 2019.
“That’s not much of an improvement,” said EIP communications director Tom Pelton, noting that in 2015 the group found the city was approving 9% of reimbursement requests.
Between 2012 and 2015 the city approved only 38 of 413 claims, according to EIP’s Stopping the Flood Beneath Baltimore’s Streets.
“This is an outrageous ripoff to city residents facing real health hazards from city sewage flooding and a betrayal of what this ‘improved’ reimbursements program was supposed to be all about,” said Pelton, the author of the report.
In response, Baltimore officials say many of the complaints were for back-ups that stemmed not from the city’s failing sewer system but from causes not covered by the program.
“It is not meant to apply to sewer backups caused by FOG (fats, oils, and grease), wipes, or other debris and impediments,” said Jeffrey Raymond, spokesman for the Department of Public Works.
Looking at the cases the program reviewed “on the merits,” 24% (or 10 out of 41) were approved, Raymond said, calling the improvement from prior years significant..
“We cannot make payments when circumstances do not apply.”
He said 31 applications were denied for procedural issues “including submitting for events that happened before the program got started and even seeking reimbursement for an event in the County.”
“We are obligated to make sure the program pays residents when the circumstances warrant, but we cannot make payments when circumstances do not apply,” Raymond said.
Blame the Victims?
Pelton said the rules are overly stringent and designed to trip up applicants.
“The city continues to blame the victims of sewage backups caused by the city’s neglect, which is heartless, given that many of the city residents flooded by sewage are elderly and lower income people who really need the city’s help,” he said.
He noted that the report showed the city denied 25 of the 74 claims for procedural reasons, primarily failing to notify DPW of the backup within 24 hours – what he called “the city’s obscure timing rule.”
“Think about it: if you suffer a sewage flood in your basement at 8 a.m. on a Sunday, why does it make sense that you should be disqualified for help simply because don’t know better and you wait to call the Department of Public Works until 9 a.m. on Monday?” he said.
Vacuuming the Sewage
Recalling the 2018 weekend of geysering sewage, Bock-Singleton recalls that it occurred not on the day of heavy rainfall, but on the sunny day that followed, catching many by surprise.
For the residents of Violetville – on Haverhill Road, Hineline Road and Rockhill Avenue – the costs incurred as a result of the back-ups were substantial, adding up to $10,000 in some cases.
Bock-Singleton’s expenses came in at $3,500, a figure she said would have been higher if her plumber (her husband at the time) had charged her for his labor. Her estimate includes the installation of a double-check valve backflow preventer that she said city officials recommend to residents.
Even with that device she had a six-inch pool of sewage to clean up.
“I used a shop vac, which I had to empty into the backyard – where else are you going to put it?” she said, noting that she had to make sure her three children were not exposed to the fecal water. “That’s a nightmare – and a health issue.”
Elderly and less well-prepared neighbors, she said, had even worse experiences and higher costs.
“I was shattered when I learned not one of our residents was reimbursed,” she said. “They checked all the boxes, they did everything right and 30 days later they were turned down.”
Department of Public Works’ Quarterly Calendar Report
(An update on Baltimore’s compliance with the Modified Consent Decree)
Date: Monday, September 30
Time: 6 p.m.
Location: MDE headquarters, 1800 Washington Blvd., Baltimore