Take Action! Public Hearing on Sewage Backup Assistance Programs

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Sewage backups into peoples’ homes are a big problem in Baltimore City. When raw sewage spurts out from a basement-level toilet, bubbles up from a floor drain, or floods a washing machine, it presents a danger to residents’ health, causes damage to homes, and requires immediate attention and resources to fix. 

Backups can be caused by heavy rain events – which are increasing in frequency and intensity due to the climate crisis – that overwhelm the city’s aging pipes and force sewage back out of the pipes into peoples’ homes. Backups can also occur during dry weather as a result of old, cracked pipes that deteriorate and eventually collapse over time if not properly maintained and replaced; tree roots that sometimes reach into already cracked pipes causing blockages and further damage; and blockages from FOG (fats, oils, and grease), “flushable” wipes, tampons, condoms, and other things that enter our sewer pipes that shouldn’t be there. 

These backups happen thousands of times each year in Baltimore and disproportionately affect Black residents due to a long history of segregation, redlining, environmental racism, and inequitable investments in infrastructure. 

We’re collaborating with coalition partners and allies on the City Council to expand the City’s two support programs for residents facing sewage backups, the Expedited Reimbursement Program (ERP), which provides limited financial reimbursement, and the Sewage Onsite Support (SOS) program, which provides direct cleanup assistance.The Baltimore City Council is holding a public hearing on these two sewage backup assistance programs on October 12th. You can join this public hearing in person or virtually: 

What is this hearing about?

In 2021, City Councilman Kristerfer Burnett introduced a bill requiring the Department of Public Works (DPW) to conduct a study on the feasibility of expanding the City’s two sewage backup assistance programs, the ERP and the SOS, to cover backups that occur in dry weather. Currently, residents are only eligible for the programs if their backups occurred as a result of wet-weather, capacity-related problems. 

DPW published the feasibility study required by Councilman Burnett’s bill in November 2021 and recommended against program expansion. Blue Water Baltimore and Clean Water Action collaboratively analyzed DPW’s study in this report. These are our main takeaways about the current programs’ performance from DPW’s study:

  • Far more dry weather backups occur every year in Baltimore City than wet weather backups, meaning that the majority of residents who experience backups are currently ineligible for the two support programs. 
  • The SOS program is helping more people than the ERP and is more protective of public health, but both programs remain significantly underused. 
  • The number of ERP applications fluctuates over time, but consistently under-represents the number of people who likely could have benefitted from the program. This demonstrates that advertisements and outreach related to this program are insufficient. 

In April 2022, Councilman Burnett introduced another resolution calling for an investigative hearing to discuss the findings from DPW’s 2021 feasibility study. This public hearing will require representatives from DPW, 311, and other relevant agencies to brief the City Council on the findings from the study and assess next steps. 

Blue Water Baltimore, partner organizations, and community advocates will be there and will advocate for the following recommendations:

  • Maintain both the SOS and the ERP programs. The SOS program is meant to provide immediate cleanup support to residents, but the ERP is an important backstop in cases where the City’s policies for responding to backups and offering assistance do not happen in practice.
  • Expand both the SOS and the ERP to cover dry weather backups that are caused by any conditions in the public system, not only wet-weather backups. The feasibility study confirmed that significantly more dry-weather backups occur every year in Baltimore City than wet-weather backups, meaning that most residents impacted by sewage backups are not currently eligible for support from the City. 
  • Improve the implementation of both programs, focusing on increased advertising and outreach and 311 operator training. Actions could include, but are not limited to, training 311 operators to inform callers about both programs and how to use them, adding a pop-up about the programs to the City’s online water billing system, including a single line of text on printed water bills, putting up billboards and signs on buses advertising the programs, integrating information about sewage backups and assistance into the City’s Red Alert system, issuing robocalls to residents, and partnering with other agencies such as the Health Department that have demonstrated success in social media communication. 
  • Improve the ERP by removing the arbitrary $5,000 cap on reimbursement and providing reimbursement for both property loss AND cleanup costs. Residents can face $10,000+ in damages after sewage backups, and cleanup costs can make up just a fraction of those expenses compared with property damage. 
  • Improve the SOS program by providing more protections for residents’ property. We’ve heard from several residents who have used the SOS program that contractors threw away their property without any consultation. Contractors should be required to get resident permission prior to throwing away property.  
  • Proactively use DPW’s Hydraulic Model to identify residents that may have experienced a capacity-related sewage backup due to wet weather, even if those residents haven’t reported a backup to 311. DPW should conduct proactive outreach to these residents through door knocking, door hangers, direct mailers, and via water bill inserts to let them know about the SOS and ERP programs every time there is a wet-weather event that may have triggered such a backup. 

How can I get involved?

  1. Sign up to attend the hearing and spread the word! The more people who attend, in person and virtually, the stronger a message we can send to the City Council that residents care about the impacts of sewage backups in our communities and want the City to do more. 
  2. Testify! You can speak for up to 2 minutes during the public comment period at the end of the hearing to share your experiences with sewage backups, the City’s assistance programs, and what changes you want City Councilmembers to make. You can also submit written testimony up to 24 hours in advance of the hearing (by 10am on Tuesday). Here is a testimony guide with more information. Contact me at [email protected] if you have any questions or would like any support preparing testimony.

Read or download the full report: