Sewer costs to go unpaid

Officials say county is not responsible for sewage backups

April clog damaged homes

Residents urged to boost insurance to cover damages

July 21, 2000|By MARY GAIL HARE | MARY GAIL HARE,SUN STAFF

Just months after a costly clog backed sewage into the basements of a Sykesville neighborhood, the county has put about 7,000 residents on notice: It will not take responsibility for backups in Carroll's sewer system.

Officials are urging residents to beef up their home-owners insurance policies to protect against such damage -- and warning them against grease, disposable diapers and other material that can clog pipes.

"The county can't and won't take liability for everything that happens," said Gary Horst, director of enterprise and recreation services. "If we have contributed, of course, we will address the problem. We can't stop people from putting stuff into the line."

But the county's hard-line posture, detailed in a notice mailed the first week of July to those who rely on the public sewer system, has angered residents in Sykesville, where a clog in April caused at least $35,000 in damage to homes along Bunker Hill Court.

"I was extremely agitated when I got the card saying the county won't be responsible," said Lisa Chapman, whose Bunker Hill Court home was damaged by the recent backup, the second on the cul-de-sac since last year. "We have been here six years, and there has never been any notice like this. Now, after two backups, they do this."

The Chapmans and their neighbors are seeking financial assistance from the county, a request the county has forwarded to its insurer.

"So far, we have heard from the insurer, Chapman said.

Accumulated cooking grease in the 8-inch sewer line through the neighborhood caused a large clog April 24. A similar problem occurred in February 1999. After the second incident, the county spent nearly $5,000 on technology to determine the source of the grease spill.

Cameras in the lines detected large amounts of grease, and traced it to Copper Ridge, a 126-bed assisted-living facility on Obrecht Road, said county administrators. County crews had reached the same conclusion shortly after the April incident.

"We popped manholes and kept walking back to find the source, and that is where it ended," said Wayne Lewns, chief of the county bureau of utilities. "I guess everybody pours a little grease down the drain, but it would take years and years to build up to this point. With the amount coming out of Copper Ridge, it won't take long to build up. We will be checking every three months."

The facility could be fined or held llable for damages, under the county's discharge ordinance.

Staff members at Copper Ridge, which has four kitchens, said they are surprised by the allegation and have not been-contacted by the county.

"We have systems in place to trap grease before it gets into the system, and we don't use it that much in cooking," said Mindy Stewart, marketing director. "We also have a vendor to transfer grease off site. We are just as baffled as anyone about this and have had no notification from anyone. Given that this is the second incident that is surprising."

The county's stepped-up sewer line maintenance program has done nothing to alleviate Lisa Chapman's worries. She measured at least 3 feet of water and sewage in her basement April 24. Six other homes on Bunker Hill Court were also affected. The same homes were damaged a year ago.

"Twice I have had Carroll County sewage in my basement," she said. "We got it the worst both times." Her home sits at the lowest point on the cul-de-sac at the western end of town and downhill from Obrecht Road. The county repaired the damages in 1999, and the Chapmans redid the basement.

Three months ago, the seepage began in the early morning and, by the time Chapman discovered it. "it was coming in so fast there was nothing we could do."

"The basement was completely full of sewage," she said. "This time we lost everything in what was basically a new club basement."

When residents notified the county of the latest backup, the line. The sewage receded. But the Chapmans' drywall, insulation molding and carpeting were ruined, as were many of the family's personal belongings.

"We have lost a third of our living space," Chapman said. "The county has really failed us. You would think there would be some concern for the residents, but there has been no visit, no courtesy call, no research, not even an apology. Every time I hear a noise in the basement, I get so nervous."

Her family is not using the basement or the bathroom that was on that level, she said, and is waiting for the remodeler to be available. For now, Chapman keeps the basement closed off and only dashes downstairs, always wearing the same sneakers, to do laundry.

Lewns said the county would be diligent in monitoring its lines.

"We will definitely not let this happen again," he said. "We can't afford this trauma again."

But, if the problem recurs, the county says it will not be responsible for damages.

Its notice to residents stated: "From any point in the system, the introduction of items such as disposable diapers, tree roots and grease, can cause clogs and back-ups in spite of regular county maintenance and cleaning. Carroll County cannot guarantee your sewer system will never back up and in most cases, is not responsible to pay for damages resulting from a sewer backup."

The county recommended that residents add protection to homeowners' insurance policies. The cost would be about $40 annually, according to local insurers.

The county commissioners were not informed of the latest backup problem, but were aware of the mailing.

"I'm sure it was done with good intentions, to let people know there may be a loophole in their homeowners insurance plan, so the citizens would know they should check with their insurance company," Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier said. "Everyone is responsible for their own pipes."

Sun staff writer Brenda J. Buote contributed to this article.

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