Years of sewer troubles raise Baltimore woman's ire

BALTIMORE - Stacy Cabanilla is an expert at unclogging drains, but it’s not a skill she learned by choice.

For the last seven years, the Baltimore city resident has been dealing with a stinky problem – sewage backing up into her house.

It’s gone from once or twice a year - to every six months - to all the time, Cabanilla said. 

It didn’t take her long to get to the root of the problem, literally. About the same time sewage started backing up into her Wendley Road home, Cabanilla began fighting with the city government over the tree roots pushing through the sidewalk in front of the house.

After she called the city several years ago, Cabanilla said, she was told she’d be fined $500 per day if she didn’t do something about the roots. In 2011, Cabanilla sent a letter to city officials pointing out a provision of the City Charter that prohibited her from touching the tree roots at all.

Finally, the city relented – but Cabanilla said getting a long-term fix has been an ordeal.

She said she and her husband called the city government daily, and they heard a few different things. Most recently, she said, workers told her she should call the city every time the sewage backs up again.

“The repeated sewage backups all over my basement and upstairs tub are not only super gross, but a health risk,” said Cabanilla, who added she already suffers from an autoimmune disorder.

Kurt Kocher, a spokesman for the Baltimore City Department of Public Works, said the city is aware of the problem and is in the process of fixing the sidewalk. That should be repaired by spring or summer at the latest, Kocher said.

DPW workers are also throwing root killer on the roots and monitoring the city’s portion of the sewer main.

“We deal with the public lines,” Kocher said. “I can’t speak to the rest of it. We responded to what we’re supposed to be doing.”

Officials with the city’s Department of Recreation and Parks also looked into Cabanilla’s problem.

Gwendolyn Chambers, a spokeswoman for the department, said inspectors went out to the home in December, then again last week to survey the tree.

The tree is alive and well, and inspectors determined it doesn’t need to come down, she said.
Chambers couldn’t say how often overgrown tree roots lead to sewage backups, but said trees aren’t usually the sole cause of sewer problems. There’s usually some kind of crack in the main, she said.

Cabanilla maintained she had the main sewer line replaced six years ago, but still had problems.

Kocher is hopeful the city’s actions will put an end to the problem.

As a precaution, he reminded homeowners to avoid putting fats, oils and grease down lines, because that leads to clogged drains. He also advised homeowners to apply root killer themselves when they notice a problem.

Kocher said the city has to juggle the desire for a green canopy of trees over its neighborhoods with challenges like this one.

“It’s a balancing act,” Kocher said.

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