An Ellicott City family is suing two top Howard County officials, claiming that their three children became sick from deadly E. coli bacteria because the county failed to properly maintain its sewer lines, allowing waste to leak into a nearby stream.
Although county health officials later said the Plumtree streambed was an unlikely source of the bacteria, Michael and Lisa Thompson contend in their lawsuit that a raw sewage leak contaminated the water near their home and made their children sick three years ago.
The Thompsons are suing County Executive James N. Robey and Public Works Director James M. Irvin, claiming public and private nuisance and negligence. The lawsuit asks for more than $1 million.
Lisa Thompson and her lawyer, Dana Whitehead McKee, said yesterday that everything points to the slimy sewage in the streambed and creek by their home as the source of the bacteria. All other possibilities - including any beef the children ate before they became sick - have been ruled out, they said.
"I know in my heart, mind and soul that [the stream] is where it was from," Thompson said.
All of the Thompson children were hospitalized as a result of the bacteria, but it was the middle child, Sarah, now 9, who became most gravely ill and spent more than two weeks at Johns Hopkins Hospital, according to the lawsuit.
Lisa Thompson also was infected with E. coli but was not hospitalized, McKee said.
For months, Thompson said, she was convinced that the county would fix the sewage problems near their home. Nine months after the children became ill, Lynne Bergling, then head of St. John's Community Association, found the leak while walking along the streambed with her husband. County officials said then that they had focused too much on a main line and had not thought to look for the leak in a smaller sanitary sewer pipe.
In their lawsuit, the family alleges that the county knew as far back as 1998 that grease was blocking the line but did nothing to prevent the problem and failed to "properly design and maintain the sewer lines."
Lisa Thompson and her children became sick after a storm Aug. 26, 1999, that caused the Plum Spring Creek - part of the Plumtree Branch watershed - to overflow onto their Spring Meadow Drive property, according to the lawsuit.
County officials said yesterday that they had not seen the lawsuit, which was filed late last month, and could not comment on it.
In a county Health Department report issued in January 2000, officials determined that "certain factors weigh against the creek water being the source of exposure" - including a too-short incubation period and the fact that the children did not swallow the creek water.
The E. coli source "cannot be determined," according to the report.
But Lisa Thompson is convinced the sewage problems were to blame. And she worries, she said, that it will happen again - and this time someone will die as a result.
"It's definitely a fear and a worry," she said.