The Baltimore Sun
Copyright 2002 @ The Baltimore Sun Company
Friday, May 3, 2002
City will need vision to fix invisible problem
BALTIMORE WAS the last major city in America to abandon
for the disposal of human waste. This, of course, is not a historical
highlight mentioned in the guidebooks to the "Greatest City in America."
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 out.
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 mess.
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
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
Part of this is a conceptual problem, because removing human
waste has been rendered largely invisible. We take our flushing for
"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 local waterways.
"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