City will need vision to fix invisible problem

May 03, 2002|By Michael Corbin

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 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 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 repairs.

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 for granted.

"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 bathrooms.

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 Baltimore.

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