Friday, October 24, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

The Case of the Mysterious Sewage Backup

THE PROBLEM: Juanita Hatton is having trouble with her sewer.

The Case of the Mysterious Sewage Backup

THE PROBLEM: Juanita Hatton is having trouble with her sewer.

Big trouble.

Water is coming up through her bathtub drain rather than going down it, and human waste is seeping up from the ground and mixing with the fallen leaves in her back yard, causing a smell so bad that it's making her sick.

And Hatton isn't the only one on her West Philadelphia block with sewer problems.

The almost-70-year-old block captain reports that at least six other residents of the 3900 block of Poplar Street have had water and sewer problems over the last month, from low water pressure to sewage backups.

On a recent Wednesday, sewage was welling up from the sidewalk in front of Robert Lewis' house - and Lewis said it would cost him several thousand dollars to fix the underlying problem causing the backup.

Odessa Lewis, another resident, complains of low water pressure at her house.

The residents say it all started back in October. Around that time, a Philadelphia Gas Works contractor did some construction underground to replace a gas main. The residents believe this caused the problems, and that PGW should step up and fix them.

"If you make a mistake, at least come and fix it," Odessa Lewis said.

WHO'S RESPONSIBLE? PGW said it conducted an internal review in response to residents' complaints that shows the utility isn't responsible for the water and sewer problems.

There's a gas line, a public water line and a private sewer line on the block, as well as pipes from each house connecting to the sewer and water lines.

PGW spokesman Cameron Kline said the utility investigates claims like this by going over construction reports, performing an on-site inspection and looking at the placement of pipes underground to determine whether PGW's work was near where the problems could have been caused.

On this block, PGW's gas lines are several feet above any sewer and water pipes, Kline said, meaning it would be difficult for the utility or its contractors to cause the types of problems the block is complaining about.

PGW needs to have proof that it made a mistake before committing to fix it, or else it could end up passing the costs of pre-existing or unrelated problems on to its customers.

After getting PGW's response, the neighbors called the Water Department, which came out to look at the city-owned water line, as well as the shared private sewer line.

Inspectors didn't find any problems with the water or sewer lines, spokeswoman Laura Copeland said.

That means the water pressure and sewage backups are being caused by problems with the private pipes that lead from these seven or so houses to the main water and sewer lines. The Water Department doesn't make repairs on those pipes - they're the homeowners' responsibility.

The homeowners, led by Hutton, still believe PGW's contractor damaged the pipes, saying that there's no other way all of them could have developed the same sort of problem at the same time.

The Water Department's Copeland said it's difficult to determine whether PGW's work caused the problems, but suggested that maybe the neighbors "should all kind of band together and appeal to PGW" for help.

For its part, PGW stands by its review, though Kline said that if Hatton or another resident hires a certified plumber to dig up the sidewalk and uncover the water and sewer lines, it will send an inspector to meet him. PGW will reimburse the cost of the plumber and pay for repairing the backup problems if the inspector determines PGW is at fault.

Hatton said she'd have trouble paying for that.

PAYING FOR REPAIRS. Calling the Water Department did have one other consequence for Hatton and at least one neighbor: They received violations for their sewage issues. Conditions were deemed unsafe, and they have to fix them or risk having their water turned off.

Although one resident paid for repairs out of his own pocket, Hatton, on a fixed income, said she's afraid she doesn't have enough money to pay a plumber to fix her pipes.

So we tried to find a program that would help cover the cost.

Hatton would normally be eligible for a five-year, no-interest loan from the Water Department that would spread out the cost of any repairs. But since her block is served by a private sewer line, she's not eligible for a loan.

There's also the Basic Systems Repair Program, which would handle the repairs for free. But it has a two-year waiting list, according to Office of Housing and Community Development spokesman Paul Chrystie. Though he said people can jump to the front of the line in the face of an "imminent health threat," it would take longer than 10 days to process Hatton's application even if the city determines her sewage issues are that serious.

Hatton could also call the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging, which helps seniors pay for home repairs, including minor plumbing ones. But Hatton's problem may be too big and might not make the cut.

She might, finally, be eligible for low-interest loans offered by a variety of city and state agencies, such as the Redevelopment Authority and the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency.

Hatton, the widow of a veteran, is also seeking help through the Department of Veterans Affairs, but hasn't heard back yet.

Dealt with a sewage issue, or any other experience with city services worth sharing? Let us know at www.thecityhowl.com, e-mail howl@phillynews.com, or call 215-854-5855.

About this blog
Every year, city government spends slightly more than $4 billion. Where does all that money come from? More importantly, where does it go? Are we getting the most bang for our tax buck? “It's Our Money” is a joint project between Philadelphia Daily News and WHYY, funded by the William Penn Foundation, designed to answer these questions.

It's Our Money contributors

Tips? Comments? Questions?
Contact:

Holly Otterbein:
215-854-5809
hm.otterbein@gmail.com
@hollyotterbein

It's Our Money
Also on Philly.com
Stay Connected