Flush to Judgment
Few citizens attend DPW meetings about long-overdue sewer infrastructure repair
Published: January 16, 2013
To announce public meetings about a sewer project—not the hottest draw in town to begin with—the Department of Public Works sent an email to local residents, directing them to navigate to the DPW’s new cleanwaterbaltimore.org site and then to a drop-down menu, where the meeting locations were divulged. The DPW was not especially concerned that its convoluted way of getting out the word wouldn’t generate much turnout—these meetings are already a big improvement on the old way, according to DPW spokeswoman Shonte Eldridge.
“We used to come and tell people, ‘We’re digging next week,’” Eldridge says, setting up a PowerPoint presentation at the Northwest District Community Action Center in central Park Heights. “Now it’s like a 90-day gap.”
And Eldridge or other DPW people will come back closer to when work starts to answer any other questions, she says: two meetings for each of the 23 projects. Plus, DPW promises to notify residents when work will be happening in their sewershed.
At the Jan. 8, 6 P.M. meeting, Eldridge is joined by a brace of DPW engineers who will be overseeing the work, the man who controls the meeting room, and two or three actual citizens (the next night there was only one). She presents the good news:
First and most important, long-deferred maintenance and replacement of the city’s sometimes century-old pipes will mean fewer sewer backups, overflows and water main breaks in the future. Second, much of the work can be done without digging trenches and causing traffic diversions, parking woes, and the other inconveniences.
In this particular project, dubbed SC 905 for bidding purposes, just 1,018 feet of pipe will be replaced by “open cut,” while more than 30 times that much—about six miles—will be renewed via cured-in-place piping. That’s a four-decade-old process in which a sock-like cloth is pulled through the old pipe, pushed to the sides with water, and then cured by steam or, more recently, ultraviolet light.
The bad news: possible smells (run your basement sink, DPW advises), consent forms to sign, disruption.
The disturbances will occur around the neighborhood for weeks or months—not the day or two when a pipe breaks and needs an emergency patch.
“Except for Monument Street, people go in and fix it and they’re done,” Project Manager George Mwangi says. “This is a bit of a long-term project.”
“Monument Street” refers to the 20-foot-deep sinkhole that opened up July 25 and reopened again, expanding to 30 feet, and then caused another sinkhole half a block away as crews struggled to repair the huge, ancient storm drain that gave way just east of the Johns Hopkins hospital complex. It took five months to fix and has become a sort of shorthand for DPW people. “Monument Street is a good example of what happens when we don’t have the funds to work on our infrastructure,” Eldridge says. Then later: “As much as we can, we try to coordinate. While [the Monument Street trench] was open, BGE put in lines, water mains went in too.”
The proactive repairs do little to mask the fact that the city allowed its underground infrastructure to rot for over half a century. It really started fixing it only in the past decade—mostly because the federal Environmental Protection Agency sued to enforce the Clean Water Act.
Under the 2002 consent decree, Baltimore promised to report all sewage leaks over 50 gallons, replace all “physical overflow structures” by 2007 (by late 2012, it still had four to go), and renew the entire system by 2016 at a cost of more than $900 million. As City Paper discovered less than six years ago (“Pardon Our Filth,” Feature, Dec. 19, 2007), there is some question about what constitutes a reportable leak. The status of an EPA investigation begun shortly after that story’s publication is undetermined.
City Paper asked DPW how many of the city’s 6,000 miles of sewer and water lines it has replaced; at press time, the city had not responded. This new initiative takes the job into the neighborhoods, where people have complained about leaky water and sewer pipes for years. It makes the PR effort crucial, as people’s front lawns will be affected. SC 905, for instance, has 33 “point repairs” and 383 sanitary house connections. Eldridge holds up a list of affected properties, which she says is available online as well.
Mwangi explains that letters of consent will go out to the property owners where workers will be. There will also be “right of entry” letters to adjacent property owners, just in case. Everyone’s hedges, flower gardens, driveways, and the like are to be protected from harm or put back the way they were. “We’ll be taking before and after pictures,” Eldridge assures them.
One of the residents speaks up. She thanks Eldridge for the information, “which is needed.” She also says there has been a seep on the ground in her yard. “I’ve got two sump pumps going,” the woman, who later asks her name not be published, says.
Eldridge promises to get her to the right people after the meeting. Someone else suggests she call 311. “They know me,” the woman says.
The next night, the only citizen attendee—Bernellyn Carey of Ashburton—tells the panel, “There’s been poop flooding my basement twice a month for 34 years.”
“I can’t promise anything,” Eldridge replies.