Neighborhood residents live with sewer gas

County, private workers can't come up with cause

`Several homes with problems'

Stench seems to correlate with air conditioning

Sykesville

July 22, 2004|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Camilla and Dick Buczek believe they have sunk their life savings into a malodorous quagmire.

When the weather turned hot and they turned on the central air conditioning in the $425,000 home they purchased six months ago in Sykesville for their retirement, all three levels reeked of sewer gas.

Other residents in the Shannon Run subdivision in southern Carroll County are experiencing similar problems.

These residents have besieged Carroll County Public Works inspectors, and hired plumbers and engineers to investigate, but still no one has come up with a definitive cause for the intermittent stench.

"The odor comes into my house daily and stays consistently," said Stacy Krasa, who is expecting her first child. "Once in a while, I smell it at the manholes. I air my house out before I sit in there."

When Rachel R. Morey moved to the neighborhood in 1997, she noticed the smell at several manholes. In 2001, she detected the odor in her home and hired a plumber, who sealed off basement pipes. This year, the smell returned stronger.

"I call the county every day it smells," Morey said. "Our plumber says gases from the pumping station are backing up into our house. I have young children, and I am concerned for their health."

Morey "has electric bills through the roof," she said, because her air conditioning runs with several windows open.

Tom Kirk, Carroll's utilities manager, said sewer mains normally have gases and are fitted with traps and vents to help dispel them. "For some reason, gases are backing up into houses, and air conditioning seems to be stirring them up," he said. "We are going to find out why."

Joe C. Barrington, county wastewater collections superintendent, has repeatedly responded to the complaints but has yet to find an explanation.

"Sewer gas does not pocket or pool," Barrington said. "It escapes and goes up into the air."

"Unless it gets into your house," Camilla Buczek said.

The Buczeks bought the brick Colonial for its pastoral setting: It backs onto a wooded area and walking trail.

They are working closely with Carroll's Public Works Department as well as their own plumber, engineer and lawyer trying to make the home livable.

The previous owners complained to the county several times about the odor, according to county records. The Buczeks said they were unaware of the problem when they bought the house.

Tim Myers, the county's plumbing inspector, examined pipes in the Buczek and Morey homes yesterday and found no operation or maintenance problem. If a sewer pipe breaks or water becomes trapped, or if there is any fluid at all, "there will be a plain old stink," he said.

The Buczeks are becoming well-versed in plumbing, pipes and sewage as well as acceptable and safe levels of chemicals like hydrogen sulfide, a gas that emanates from sewers.

"I know that if you can smell sewer gas, the levels are already too high and are exceeding permissible levels," said Camilla Buczek, a retired attorney who specialized in environmental law.

They have even "pepperminted" their home - dropping gallons of peppermint oil into a roof vent and then checking inside the house for the scent. During the test, the only place anyone detected peppermint was in the exterior drain pipe on the front lawn.

"That tells me the venting and waste systems are airtight and that all the caps are sealed," Myers said.

Dick Buczek, a retired Army officer, said he feels as if he's living in the "land of maybes. We have an engineer's report that says leakage from the outside pipes could be filtering into drain tiles."

Myers said that if that is the case and "if a spill hits drain tiles, you will get odors in the house."

The county ran cameras through its sewer lines but did not find any cracks. At the nearby pumping station, which serves about 45 mostly newer homes, wastewater cycling has been reduced to twice a day, and a cleansing agent is added to the process.

"Now we get a heavy chemical smell instead of a vile smell," Dick Buczek said.

Public Works officials plan to install an aerator at the pumping station. They are also inspecting homes of others who have complained. Several residents run the air conditioning with windows open.

"Right now we are treating the symptoms but not the cause," said Franklin Schaeffer, deputy director of Carroll's Public Works.

The Buczeks are appreciative of the county's efforts and remain determined to find a solution and stay in their home.

"I hope the county does not seize on this one aspect and excuse itself of all problems related to gas venting," Dick Buczek said. "There are several homes with problems."

His wife added, "If it is our fault, we want to take care of it. If it is the county's, we want them to take care of it."

The couple could be facing thousands of dollars in repairs. They may have to tear out their sidewalk, dig up exterior pipes and remove surrounding dirt that is permeated with the odor. Then, they would install new pipes, surround them with clean fill dirt and replace the sidewalk.

"Even if we do all this, would gas still come in?" he asked.

Camilla Buczek found a sympathetic ear and a promise last week, when she told the story to the county commissioners.

"If the problem is coming from our lines, we will have to do something," Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge said.

But, Commissioner Dean L. Minnich said, "Let's make sure we fix the right thing."

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