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Clearwater may sue contractor over sewage spewing into homes

After sewage surged through pipes into three Clearwater homes on Pinebrook Drive in August 2010, crews work to fix the lines.

JIM DAMASKE | Times (2010)

After sewage surged through pipes into three Clearwater homes on Pinebrook Drive in August 2010, crews work to fix the lines.

CLEARWATER — One morning in 2010, food chunks and cigarette butts surfed a wave of human waste through the toilets and bathtubs of three homes on Pinebrook Drive.

Paid by the city to clean a new sewer line, a contractor's crews had accidentally blasted sewage backward, defiling oak floors, closets and family mementos under a 6-inch fecal flood.

Days later, with two of the homes rendered uninhabitable, the city began cleaning the putrid mess, repairing the damage and reimbursing residents for things soiled in the sludge. After about eight months, the cleanup tab came to more than $150,000.

For months, city leaders have asked BRW Contracting, the Land O'Lakes contractor, to pay them back. Now officials are planning to take their case to court.

The messy lawsuit, which the City Council is expected to approve tonight, marks one of the rare cases over the last two decades where the city sued its own contractor for damages. Assistant city attorney Dick Hull said, "It doesn't often go this wrong."

But Clearwater could have a high-priced fight on its hands. BRW leaders told Hull they had launched their own investigation, which found they were not at fault. They insist they owe nothing. Phone and e-mail messages left with BRW this week were not returned.

BRW's work for the city started simply enough that February, when the company was hired to replace a sewer main that pumps sewage between two city lift stations. The job was to cost the city about $430,000 and end that October.

But one Tuesday morning in August, as crews pumped water at high pressure through the new line, a backflow of sewage spewed into three neighboring homes at 1018, 1020 and 1022 Pinebrook Drive.

The homes, on the shore of Stevenson Creek and just north of the Clearwater Country Club, were flooded with half a foot of used toilet paper and sludge gushing from sinks and faucets.

The problem, BRW owner Randy Blankenship told the Times then, began with the city's order to "pig the line." In the piping industry, pigs are bullet- or ball-shaped widgets launched by water through pipelines to blast out clogs and crud.

But in ordering the pig, Blankenship said, the city did not account for elevation: the homes were lower than the main pipe, allowing the muck to surge downhill. He said officials also did not ask for one-way valves that could have stopped the backflow.

City officials contend it was BRW's responsibility to decide how to do the project. If crews found a problem, officials said, they should have reported it to the city first.

The city's suit could also turn on a standard "hold harmless" clause in its contract with BRW, which Hull said could protect the city from liability due to a "negligent act."

In the wake of the disaster, with BRW refusing to pay for cleanup, officials offered to pay to book residents into motels and begin the massive cleanup.

Restoration cleaners, carpenters and painters had to rebuild the homes from the ground up, city records show, scrubbing with antimicrobial cleansers and replacing ruined oak floors, carpets, baseboard and drywall.

Bundles of soiled clothing, from leather boots and blankets to shawls and cocktail dresses, were sent to specialized restoration dry cleaners. One home sent nearly 100 pieces of clothing, at a laundry cost of $1,200.

Gone were all manner of books, throw rugs, mattresses and sofas, which absorbed the swampy muck. Some things could not be replaced: one resident lost a one-of-a-kind poster from her late husband's memorial service.

"Legally, maybe we didn't have the responsibility," said Wayne Barker, a city risk management specialist. "But morally, we did, because they were our citizens, and they were in a pinch."

Ron Patella returned from work that day to find the home he had spent three years remodeling partly flooded: his billiards room, with $80-a-yard carpeting, was soaked in dark muck.

The city paid for all the demolition, cleanup and even the electrical bills for the dehumidifiers and fans used to dry the mess. A home-remodeling contractor himself, Patella said BRW should pay for the cleanup with its insurance — or brace for a loss in court.

"We did not want to live with that diseased water, any part of it," he said. "I didn't really care whose fault it was."

Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or dharwell@tampabay.com. Send letters to the editor at tampabay.com/letters.

Clearwater may sue contractor over sewage spewing into homes 03/14/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 14, 2012 7:34pm]
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