Leak victims seek money

Carroll residents want compensation for repair work

`Pipes do wear out'

County budget chief investigating

`We're not liable,' Dell says

October 15, 2001|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

Carol Brown does not feel she should be out $4,000 for mistakes she thinks somebody else made. Hundreds of her Eldersburg neighbors, who paid $1,000 or more to fix pipes ravaged by pinhole leaks, feel the same way.

They say that Carroll County caused the leaks by removing pipe-protecting agents from its water and that the county should repay South Carroll residents for the repairs.

But no one has taken responsibility for the leaks, and similar problems in other water systems have led researchers to develop so many theories that assigning blame could prove tricky at best.

"I don't think there's ever been a clear definition of who's responsible," said Doug Myers, Carroll's director of public works. "As far as I know, a lot of factors could have caused the problems. We were providing clear drinking water, and that's all we're required to do."

Brown and other affected residents say that although Myers might be right, the county's culpability can be deduced.

The county received about 200 complaints of pinhole leaks last year, and about 490 residents reported leaks to the county during a survey taken in April. But no one knows for sure how many homes have been affected.

Facing a rising number of leaks, Carroll decided in July last year to begin adding a corrosion inhibitor to the water at its Freedom District treatment plant in South Carroll. Reports of leaks have been dropping steadily since the inhibitor was introduced, says Gary Horst, county director of enterprise and recreational services.

Residents were happy to see the improvement -- until they learned that the inhibitor was similar to one used by the county through the early 1990s. Carroll stopped using that inhibitor because Maryland Department of the Environment reports said it caused algae blooms in Liberty Reservoir. Reports of pinhole leaks in the county started to rise in 1995 and climbed until the new inhibitor started being used last year.

Thus, residents argue, it can be assumed that if the county had continued using a corrosion inhibitor, the leaks wouldn't have proliferated.

The claims don't hold up, county officials say, because Carroll only sought to comply with MDE requirements.

County residents are "basically telling us, `We appreciate the survey data and it looks like there's been some betterment, but now what are you going to do for us?'" Horst said.

Residents say it might be difficult to prove that the county acted negligently or maliciously.

"I don't see the county taking on the financial burden. And personally, I think you'd have to prove they had knowledge of what they were doing and acted negligently," said Pam Seiter, another Eldersburg resident whose pipes were damaged by pinhole leaks. "I'd like to say I think that's not the case, that really it was just stupidity."

The Browns spent $2,000 to repair leaks in copper pipes leading from their home to the water main in the street and another $2,600 to repair pipes inside their house.

Seiter not only had to pay for repairs to her pipes, she said, but also paid about $150 for a permit fee for repairs and a pressure release valve that is now required.

The extra fees seemed like insult on top of injury, she says. "They could at least waive those," she said.

County permit officials say there are no new fees relating to the pinhole leaks and that any new requirements are part of the county's overall plumbing code.

Seiter says she has heard leak victims talking about a class action lawsuit though none has been filed. Commissioner Donald I. Dell says he wouldn't be surprised to see the issue end up in court.

"My personal feeling is that we're not liable," he said. "Pipes do wear out, and it's up to homeowners to maintain them."

Dell says he would be uncomfortable appeasing a few people at the expense of county taxpayers.

The issue of compensating leak victims has been passed among county staff members, landing most recently with Steve Powell, director of budget and finance.

Powell says he will make a recommendation to the commissioners in the next few weeks.

Representatives of other localities across the country that have contended with pinhole leaks say they have not compensated residents, because like Carroll officials, they're unsure who, if anyone, caused the problems.

Brown says she'll wait to hear Powell's recommendation and the commissioners' responses.

"But I'm in more of an aggressive waiting mode. I want to either wrap this up or move to the next step. I'm here for the long haul, and I'll call the commissioners every week until they give me a day" that they'll address concerns, she said.

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