Done Taking Crap: One Baltimorean fights City Hall on recurrent sewer issues
Published: October 5, 2011
The joy Eric Sapp felt on the afternoon of Sept. 27 was palpable. At last, his tenants could again flush their toilets. Finally, the sewage backup into the basement on the 200 block of South Patterson Park Avenue was cleared.
“I literally felt like crying when I got word,” Sapp wrote in an e-mail to City Paper shortly after a crew of seven workers left the block. “I never had problems sleeping and have been up at 5:30 the last few days worrying over this. 13 days with no working sewer!”
But Sapp is not satisfied. He thinks it unreasonable that a city health inspector threatened to cite him for having sewage in the basement. He also thinks the city took too long responding to his complaint, and that it has erected—by design or accident—a bureaucratic labyrinth in which government agencies neither see nor hear each other as infrastructure repairs are delayed for months and then done improperly, creating more problems.
Sapp and his tenant, Matt Berry, have been flooded repeatedly since November 2009, from both a blocked or collapsed sewer pipe and from storm-water runoff. Before last week’s fix, Sapp documented four fixes to the problem, including three “snakings” of his sewer pipe on his dime, a video camera inspection, and four expensive cleanups of sewage or storm runoff into the house Sapp bought in 2004.
He also noted three separate “fixes” by city crews that dug up the street in front of his home. These efforts not only failed to cure the problem, but in one case, Sapp says, actually diverted rainwater into his house, flooding the basement. He claims to have spent more than $8,000 on plumbers, disinfectant, mold abatement, and replacement of his tenants’ ruined property. A claim he made with the city for reimbursement was denied, though city investigators apparently did not interview Sapp, his tenant, or his contractor.
Sapp’s case is reminiscent of the ordeal Julius Sneed endured last year when multiple city fixes to a sewer line in the alley next to his home failed to stop water from flooding his basement (“Stinking Mess,” Mobtown Beat, March 24, 2010; “How Long Must He Wait to Flush?” The News Hole, Sept. 3, 2010). Like Sapp, Sneed requested the city pay his damages. Unlike Sapp, Sneed actually got a check—though not as much as he wanted.
City Paper wants to learn how common these sewer-pipe collapses and blockages are and how often city workers fail to fix the problem. We asked the Department of Public Works (DPW) for data on sewer repairs and were told that there would be “thousands of pages” of documents, the preparation of which for public release would cost the paper money.* City Paper has also asked the city’s Law Department for data on damage claims by people flooded because of leaky, blocked, or collapsed city pipes. It promised an answer within the 30 days allowed by the Maryland Public Information Act. (If you or someone you know has had a recent experience with sewer or storm-water backups caused by city-owned pipes, please contact the paper via email@example.com.)
“The significance of the story is that this is the fifth time that this has happened in four years,” Matt Berry, Sapp’s tenant, says. “The city was out here last year to fix it [and] it was a tremendously trying ordeal to get them out here in the first place.”
Berry, who has lived with his girlfriend in the house for four years, says the original blockage happened in the fall of 2009. Sapp brought in contractor George Waldhauser, who brought in a plumber with a high-powered “snake.” Sapp says clearing the pipe cost $2,000, and the plumber snaked more than 80 feet of the line—well beyond the front property line and into the city-owned portion of the sewer system.
Determining which side of that invisible line the problem is on forms the crux of the trouble. Before it will repair a pipe at taxpayer’s expense, the DPW requires proof that a problem is on its side of the line—proof usually obtainable only with a video camera snaked through the line. City workers can do that, but only if they can get access from a “cleanout” pipe outside the house. They cannot snake a line from inside a residence, and many houses have no outside cleanout, leading to a Catch-22 for homeowners: They have no need for an expensive video when the line is clear, and they can’t get the video when the line is flooded from a blockage.
Sapp says DPW officials told him at the outset that the problem was definitely on his side of the property line. He says he took for granted that the city was right. In the summer of 2010, the line backed up again, so he called a plumber to set up a tighter maintenance schedule.
In November, the line was blocked again. This time the plumber couldn’t fix it, suspecting a collapsed pipe. Sapp paid to have a camera inserted into the line and got a measurement showing definitively that the blockage was on public property. He says he submitted the video but got a “runaround” from the DPW. City workers eventually arrived, dug a 10-foot-deep hole in the street, and replaced the collapsed line.
Two days later the pavement on Patterson Park Avenue collapsed as a sinkhole opened underneath it where the workers had dug and refilled the hole. A series of temporary patches ensued.
In November, a DPW crew came out to redo the work. In doing so, they piled dirt and debris on the sidewalk that Sapp says created an inadvertent dam that sent rainwater into his basement. Again Berry’s stuff was ruined, again Sapp complained. He called 1st District City Councilmember James Kraft (D).
“I told him to sue the city,” Kraft says in a Sept. 9 phone conversation.
Kraft explains that citizens who think city employees or neglect have cost them money or property can file a claim with the Law Department, which assigns an investigator. If the investigation shows the city is culpable, the city makes a settlement offer.
“Bottom line is, most of the time the city is going to make you sue if they can find a way to make you sue,” Kraft says.
Sapp claimed in his reimbursement application to the city more than $3,800 in repairs and other bills related to the mess—leaving off some of the big snake bills because of a time limit on claims, he says: “I was basically trying to cut my losses to the things that were indisputably the city’s fault.”
According to a copy of the claim, Sapp included contact numbers for himself, Berry, and contractor George Waldhauser. None were contacted before the city rejected his claim, which Sapp calls “infuriating.”
It was more so, he says, when the sewer backed up again a few weeks ago. The city would not accept the old video as proof that the problem is on its property, and the pipe remained flooded, meaning no new video could be taken. Another attempt at snaking the line broke the tempered steel blade off the plumber’s snake, Waldhauser says.
A Sept. 16 visit to the house finds a wet, stinking basement filled with Berry and his girlfriend’s belongings. Sapp arrives with Waldhauser and all three men begin moving Berry’s stuff to higher ground, away from an inoperable bathroom at the back of the basement that is the outlet for the back-up. Berry says a city worker came by to inspect the trouble the previous night at 10 p.m. and “would not sign any paper or give any paper” to Berry, who has been trying to document the city’s response to the ongoing problems. “He walked in and walked out,” Berry says.
Sapp says 311 has been efficient and pleasant, but no one called back: “The last time it took three weeks.”
“They have six different crews that come out to do the job, and they don’t talk to each other,” Berry says. “I sat with the city sewer worker in the truck—his phone didn’t stop ringing. He laughed to me. He said it never stops.”
On Sept. 16, Sapp says he heard from the Health Department. “I finally had someone from the City call us back,” he wrote in an e-mail. “It was a health inspector saying we were in violation and may be cited for having sewage in our basement with tenants!”
Ten more days passed before a crew from R.E. Harrington Plumbing and Heating arrived to dig again on the city’s dime. On Sept. 27, Joel Marinsek stands in front of Sapp’s house near two red dump trucks and a backhoe. He is a “resident inspector”—another contractor hired to check Harrington’s work, make sure the city is getting its money’s worth. He holds what looks like a street map with a handwritten notation saying to dig in front of this house and fix what’s wrong.
“The only thing we were given is that,” Marinsek says, nodding toward the printout. He says he knows nothing of the previous visits by the city DPW people or other contractors. “We have to play the game of going there, locating the problem, and fixing it.”
The trouble is the same thing it usually is—a tree planted above the pipe punctured it with its roots. In this case, the workers took the tree down as well, figuring it was done for once they removed the 2-foot root ball that was on the pipe. “There are certain streets in this city, we’ve been to every house,” says Marinsek, who has been overseeing this kind of work for the past 18 months.
Contractor Robert Harrington says he’s plenty busy, but not as busy as he used to be. “The city gets the complaint, he says, and “sometimes they sit on it for weeks” before passing it to him.
He turns back to supervise his crew as they remove the last few branches of the cut tree and begin to clear the job site. Tomorrow there’ll be concrete to pour, a new sidewalk.
Sapp is ecstatic. Harrington left a truck at the curb the previous night to guarantee the work site would not be blocked by parked cars. City employees would not have done that, Sapp believes, just as they didn’t do the whole job last year. “[The city crew] dug a 15-foot hole in the street to clear a huge problem and then didn’t bother, while they [had] the whole thing open, to just check back to the end of the line.”
Sapp says he’ll put in a new damage claim at City Hall. He’s pondering a lawsuit too. “I’m taking my doctor’s advice—don’t make any really big decisions when you’re angry and exhausted,” he says. “I’m more exhausted than angry.”
But Sapp hopes his ordeal, and the stink he’s raising about it, can lead to better systems at City Hall and the DPW. “It becomes significantly more important to try to keep this from happening to other people,” Sapp says, “especially people who don’t have the same resources.”
Correction: Due to an editorial error, the initial version of this story reported that the documents requested of the city would cost City Paper "thousands" of dollars. No exact cost to the paper was ever discussed. City Paper regrets the error.
> Email Edward Ericson Jr.