|The Baltimore Sun
May 3, 2002 Friday FINAL Edition
BALTIMORE WAS the last major city in America to abandon
cesspools for the disposal of human waste. This, of course, is not a
historical highlight mentioned in the guidebooks to the "Greatest City
In 1879, the city had 80,000 cesspools, according to
Martin Melosi in his The Sanitary City: Urban Infrastructure in America
from Colonial Times to the Present.
Vincent J. Pompa, director of education and programs at
Baltimore's Public Works Museum, says a main reason Baltimore finally
could get sewers built was that part of the city burned to the ground in
1904, literally leveling the political playing field for those who
opposed the more parochial cesspool interests. The trenches dug and the
pipe laid then for Baltimore's "sanitary sewer" represented a unique
political moment. Parochial interest and expediency were set aside, and
in the interests of public health, economic growth and a genuinely
democratic ideal -- a single, central system of water and sewerage
available to all -- a daunting civil engineering project was carried
That system is now failing dramatically, turning streams
and tributaries back into de facto cesspools.
Millions of gallons of raw sewage have been dumped into
Baltimore's waters because of system failures in the last six years. The
physical failures of leaking sewer pipes and overloaded pumps are bad,
but the failure of political leadership is even worse and a measure of
where politics are these days.
Baltimore agreed last week to pay a federal fine of
$600,000 and make more than $900 million in repairs to the city's sewer
system over the next 14 years. This will mean a big increase in sewer
rates for Baltimore residents. But rather than acknowledging a
complicity in both endangering public health and causing the ecological
degradation of our waterways, the current city administration has sought
to blame the federal government for telling the city to clean up its
Mayor Martin O'Malley rather melodramatically deployed a
now most common American politic rhetoric: assign responsibility
elsewhere and assume a victim's pose.
"I just have to shake my head that the federal
government would be so uncaring about the cost of this to city
residents," he proclaimed.
In fairness, Mr. O'Malley inherited a problem wrought
from years of neglect, one faced by many older cities across the
country. Nationally, $23 billion is needed for current repairs, and the
total repair bill over the next 20 years is estimated at nearly $1
trillion, according to the Water Infrastructure Network, a coalition of
local water and sewer officials and environmental groups. Current
legislation in Congress and state houses would provide only a small
fraction of what cities like Baltimore need for those infrastructure
Professional politicians at all levels have largely
abdicated their responsibility to address a huge problem facing a system
on which our collective life depends.
Michael Charles, a lobbyist for the American Society of
Civil Engineers, says of our water and wastewater systems, "With the
exception of the interstate highway system, they are the largest public
works infrastructure in this country, the biggest investment we've made
in the 20th century. And it's in real trouble. A lot of these aging
facilities have outlived their design life and have to be replaced."
Part of this is a conceptual problem, because removing
human waste has been rendered largely invisible. We take our flushing
"There's no federal tax associated with toilets and
faucets," says Benjamin H. Grumbles, an official of the Environmental
Protection Agency, contrasting the federal user fees and taxes for
highway and road repair to the comparatively free ride we get in our
George L. Winfield, director of the Baltimore Department
of Public Works, said when his crews diverted more than 1.6 million
gallons of raw sewage into the Jones Falls on Sept. 26, 2000, because of
heavy rains that the city has only two options when Baltimore's sewers
become overtaxed: let the sewage back up into homes or divert it into
"When we make this decision, it's, 'Do we impact the
citizens directly and cause property damage and a health risk, or do we
discharge it into a body of water?'" he said then.
Building a water and sewer infrastructure will take
genuine leadership and vision.
The pollution from our failing sewage system is a
problem for which no one wants to take responsibility. The timetable for
the work that needs to get done is beyond the demands of the election
cycle and, indeed, most terms of office.
Michael Corbin is a free-lance writer who lives in