Thursday, January 1, 2004

Direct help coming for sewer woes

For 1st time, utility to clean up, pay for damage, fix problems

By Cindi Andrews
The Cincinnati Enquirer

CHEVIOT - Deirdre and Marvin Coleman got a smelly surprise during a heavy rain about three years ago when raw sewage and stormwater backed up into their basement, ruining carpet and furniture.

The Colemans called the Metropolitan Sewer District for help, but the work crew didn't come until a day later, by which time the flood had receded. They didn't bother to call when the flooding recurred.

"It's getting progressively worse," she said of the flooding.

Beginning today, the Colemans and more than 1,000 other Hamilton County families in the same situation should find a new attitude when they call the sewer district.

For the first time, the district will offer homeowners help with cleanup, payment for damages and even a permanent fix to problems.

"It's a new day," said Bob Campbell, deputy director of the countywide sewer district. "We will be very responsive to sewer backups."

Basement flooding has long been a problem in the county's oldest communities, including Cheviot, Cincinnati and Madeira. When rain overloads sewer pipes, the pressure forces a stew of sewage and stormwater up through lower-level drains and toilets.

The sewer district estimates it could take five years and $35 million to stop sewage backups in all homes throughout the county.

Prompted by a lawsuit by the environmental group Sierra Club and directives from county commissioners, the district is planning changes to address the problem:

• Crews will be scheduled 24 hours a day, and more will be on standby, to respond more quickly to complaints, Campbell said.

The aim is to get to homes within four hours of a call to see if the problem is the district's fault. Surface flooding and problems with the lateral - the pipe that ties a home to the main sewer - are not the sewer district's responsibility.

• The sewer district will study weather forecasts and increase staffing when heavy rain is expected.

• In addition to the work crews, customer service representatives also will respond to every call. If the problem is the district's fault, they will take photos to document damage and schedule cleanup.

• Homeowners can be reimbursed for damage caused by sewage flooding. Such claims used to be routinely rejected as acts of God.

• Engineers will propose permanent solutions to each home's flooding problems.

The district is installing an individual pump as a pilot project in another Cheviot home. If that works, the pump, which goes in the yard or basement, is one option engineers will use for some homes. Other homes might get a backflow prevention device.

The changes are "a long overdue step in the right direction that we're going to be watching closely," Commissioner Todd Portune said.

The sewer district's new responsiveness to customers is a small part of its $1.5 billion plan to fix overflows into the county's streets and stream as well as homeowners' basements.

The plan still must be approved by U.S. District Judge Arthur Spiegel, but the sewer district is going ahead and getting started.

The overhaul will take 19 years and probably triple sewer rates, district officials have said. For starters, rates will rise 14 percent in 2004.

To be reimbursed for property damage caused by sewage backups, owners should:

Call the Metropolitan Sewer District within 24 hours - but ideally as soon as flooding begins. The number is 352-4900.

Take photos of the flooding.

File a claims form, available from the sewer district.

Take recommended actions to prevent future damage. Those who don't may have claims rejected next time.


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