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Mobtown Beat

Spewing Sewer Leaves Couple Homeless

DPW chasing clogged and leaking pipes city-wide

Photo: Frank Klein, License: N/A, Created: 2011:11:09 17:50:36

Frank Klein

Riddie Becker stands in his Locust Point basement, which a city sewer backup filled with sewage in early November. He and wife Angela Becker have been unable to live in the house since.

The scene was horrific, and it was about to get worse: two inches of raw sewage covering the basement floor, more bubbling up out of the toilet. Angela Becker says it happened to her on Nov. 7, in the home she lives in with her husband on Andre Street in Locust Point.

“We called 311 several times and around 10:30 a.m., the Department of Public Works came to the 1300 block of Andre St. to rectify the problem,” Becker wrote in a Nov. 8 e-mail to City Paper. “We were told that the sewage line in our neighborhood was backed up with ‘grease that people poured down their drains.’ After several hours, the DPW said that they were seeing some movement in the sewer lines and that the problem would be rectified shortly.”

Becker’s e-mail continues:

Suddenly, brown, sludgy raw sewage (ie: human waste) began to geyser out of the floor in the basement bathroom. This continued for approximately an hour. Our basement filled with 5+ inches (250 gallons) of raw sewage. Carlos, the DPW worker came into the house and saw the resulting damage. He asked us if the leak stopped, and we said that we weren’t sure, and that he was welcome to come in and check. He laughed and said he would be back. He did not come back, and the DPW truck was soon gone from the neighborhood.

Becker’s nightmare was just starting. Calls to city agencies, city councilmembers, and the Fire Marshal’s office brought no relief. The couple paid a private company to pump out the basement, but was left with a pile of contaminated junk—the stuff they’d stored in the basement, including husband Riddie Becker’s musical equipment—littering their backyard. Unable to live in the house (“We had to buy respirators just to go into the house and get our clothes and get my cat,” Becker says), they moved in with her parents. Cleaning up the mess was estimated by one company at up to $7,500, she says. The insurance company told Becker’s mother, who owns the property, that the damage was not covered.

“What we really wanted was Baltimore City to say, ‘We caused this, this is our problem, and we’re going to clean it up,’” Becker says. “The city admits that it’s their fault, [but] they no longer send cleanup crews. They stopped two years ago because it’s no longer in the budget.”

Kurt Kocher, spokesperson for the DPW, at first confirms that the city used to pump out people’s basements in such circumstances. “There were liability issues,” he says, “but let me get back to you.”

Later he e-mails a statement of policy indicating that the city still does such work when the trouble is with city-owned plumbing: “If customer experiences sewer overflow in the basement DPW Maintenance first response is to relieve the choke [clog] if possible from the external cleanout to the city main. We will also offer to pump water out of the basement that is of a depth ([greater than] 3 [inches]) that is an amount that can be pumped by our equipment.”

The practical problem, Kocher says, comes in moving the resident’s stuff out of the basement. That’s decided on a case-by-case basis. About the worker who allegedly said he would return and didn’t, “The matter may have been handled better,” Kocher says. “We’ll have to look at that a little more to make sure it’s handled properly.”

Two weeks after the disaster, Becker says she and her husband had to haul all of their contaminated belongings to the dump. Her husband has cleaned the entire basement with a shovel, bleach, and a wet vac, she says, but the couple has decided not to fix the furnace, hoping instead to replace it when the damage is renovated. In the meantime they will be living at her mother’s home.

Becker says she has not totaled up the family’s losses and so has not yet submitted a claim to the city. “No word from DPW, or anyone for that matter,” Becker writes in a Nov. 20 e-mail. “Allstate has stuck to their guns & is not covering anything.”

She says she’s hoping the city will cover the damage. “The whole thing is this could happen again,” Becker says in a Nov. 21 interview. “The guy who was cleaning the pipe said this is a problem all over the city. This happens all the time.”

Baltimore’s DPW receives about 7,000 calls each year complaining about basement sewer leaks, Kocher says. About half of them result in a “real work order.” The city has budgeted more than $46 million for storm- and waste-water system maintenance—not counting outside contractors.

As the online Baltimore Brew’s Mark Reutter has reported, city water contractors have been busy. In June, a $10.4 million water-pipe repair contract awarded in 2009 to New Jersey-based Spinello Co. was nearly doubled to $19.7 million because of emergency repairs to a broken water main and other unforeseen contingencies. (At the Nov. 16 city Board of Estimates meeting, the company was awarded its 30th “extra work order,” for $570,000, increasing the total contract to $22 million, by Reutter’s math.) The Baltimore Board of Estimates also voted last May to increase water and sewer fees by 9 percent.

In short, the city’s waste pipes—most of them more than 60 years old—are a major headache. Eight weeks ago City Paper told Eric Sapp’s sewer story (“Done Taking Crap,” Mobtown Beat, Oct. 5). He has since filed a lawsuit seeking a nearly $25,000 reimbursement from the city for damages incurred in his months-long case.

Following Sapp’s story, readers quickly offered four other weird and terrible flooding stories from all parts of the city. Sample quotes: “My young family was recently forced out of my house for two weeks after a city sewer line backed into my basement for 48 hours straight.” “Within 24 hours of me moving into my apartment on Sept 7, (during those heavy rainstorms we had), my kitchen sink began overflowing with runoff. This comes less than 12 hours after I had no water pressure in my apartment. Both were apparently due to city pipe problems.” “We have human feces flooding the kitchen. It is coming from the city’s line. We have had no response from the city to this blockage site. This is a health hazard. It has happened repeatedly over the years and they have never fixed it permanently.”

Kocher says that city crews do the best they can responding to complaints, and that sewer pipes in many problem areas are cleaned several times each year to prevent catastrophic backups. He sends a spreadsheet indicating that the Locust Point area where Becker lives has been serviced 45 times since 2005, for instance. This year it received two “mainline cleanings” before the November incident.

“We’ve been very proactive in that area with cleaning,” Kocher says. “This particular address, we don’t think we’ve had a problem before.”

Kocher says city engineers are looking at problem areas of the city’s sewer lines with an eye toward designing permanent fixes. Money is tight, as always, but next spring, he says, there will be a major project in Reservoir Hill.

Many systemic problems have arisen with redevelopment, Kocher says, citing Canton Square. When it was residential, there were few problems, but when it was built up with new restaurants—some of whose owners “were new to the country,” Kocher says—the extra load from them, including grease dumping, caused problems. “I guess one of the big messages that everybody has to take away from this is individual responsibility to your neighbors is important,” Kocher adds, “in that you don’t throw things down there that don’t belong there.”

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