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Work on sewer line sends sewage into Clearwater homes

CLEARWATER — The muck surged through the pipes of the Pinebrook Drive home, flowed over the sides of the tubs and soaked the carpeting.

"Imagine all of the neighborhood's toilets overflowing into my house," said Chris von Herrmann, 27. "That's what it smelled like."

The view was equally nauseating, von Herrmann said. Cigarette butts, toilet paper, food particles, and, of course, human waste.

"Things that people flush, up and down the neighborhood, they're washing up on my living room floor," he said.

The sewage disaster happened Tuesday morning, as a contractor was cleaning out a newly installed sewer line during a city-financed project in a residential neighborhood off Betty Lane. Two other houses on the street also suffered damage from the backflow.

The city blames the contractor it hired for the $431,175 project, BRW Contracting Inc., and is asking the Land O'Lakes company to foot the bill for cleanup, something that could exceed $100,000.

In a letter sent to the company Thursday, the city said it had advised affected residents to seek restitution from the company since "this mishap was caused by BRW's means and methods." The letter noted a clause in the contract which said BRW would "assume all responsibility for any damages."

Later Thursday, City Manager Bill Horne and other officials decided the city would pay for cleanup because "it's the right thing to do," said city spokeswoman Joelle Castelli.

"The city is going to step in and make it right for them and we'll worry about dealing with the contractor separately," she said. "Our position is that this is their responsibility."

But BRW owner Randy Blankenship said Friday that it was actually the city that specified the company "pig the line" to clean it. The process consists of using high-pressure water to push a foam device, known as a pig, through the pipe to remove debris.

It is not BRW's preferred method, Blankenship said, adding that he typically uses a "jetting and vacuuming" method, which would have prevented the backflow.

Blankenship said the problem occurred because the lateral pipes at the three homes — 1018, 1020 and 1022 Pinebrook — sit at a lower elevation than the main line. When the pigging device passed by the lateral pipes, it pushed sewer water into the homes' plumbing.

Blankenship said the city was aware of the elevation issue and could have ordered "check valves" that would have closed off the pipes to avoid the problem. A sewage backup caused by, for instance, an inoperable lift station could cause a similar backflow, Blankenship said.

"The danger lurks that this could happen to these folks again," he said.

City construction manager Perry Lopez said BRW representatives should have informed the city if they foresaw a problem.

"It clearly says in the documents if there is a discrepancy to bring it to our engineers' attention," Lopez said. "That's why we hire these companies, because of their expertise."

BRW was hired in February to replace an old force main pipe that conveys raw sewage from one lift station to another. The project is scheduled to be completed in October.

Lopez said he's received numerous complaints from residents about a variety of issues relating to the project. But many, he said, had already been resolved by the company.

Von Herrmann said he was concerned about the company from the start, when workers dug up the wrong part of the yard at the home he shares with his wife, Kelly "Wren" von Herrmann, 29, and his mother-in-law, Carol Kirtley, 57.

In the process, the crew unearthed the cremated remains of Kirtley's deceased husband, James Kirtley, who died of Lou Gehrig's disease in April 2006, Kirtley said.

Kirtley and von Herrmann said they've heard a litany of complaints from neighbors: mailboxes knocked over, berms razed without being rebuilt, erosion issues, drainage problems and at least one ruined driveway.

Blankenship said it's impossible to complete a large-scale project without some disturbance. But anything that has not yet been restored will be by the time the project is finished, he said.

At the Kirtley-von Herrmann home, the sewage seeped into the drywall and befouled the baseboards. And the mess claimed a one-of-a-kind poster made for James Kirtley's memorial service.

"That was the heartbreaking part," Carol Kirtley said.

The home is uninhabitable and cleanup, estimated at $20,000 to $30,000, could take weeks, von Herrmann said.

Carol Kirtley said Friday she was disappointed that she has not heard from anyone at BRW.

"They haven't contacted us at all," she said.

Rita Farlow can be reached at farlow@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4157.

Work on sewer line sends sewage into Clearwater homes 08/06/10 [Last modified: Friday, August 6, 2010 9:04pm]
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