Flush with Anger

Donna Hesketh wants to sell her house. Who could blame her?

Standing in her driveway, she looks at the dead trees in her yard and wonders whether they've been poisoned. When she gets a cold, she worries that she's breathed in bacteria. She can barely walk through her house, where every room is packed full of boxes containing belongings that weren't too damaged to throw away. She certainly can't live here.

Twice since 2001, Hesketh's home near Sunnyslope Park has been flooded with raw sewage. The first time, in July 2001, the damage came to more than $60,000. Her insurance company picked up the tab, then limited future payouts to $10,000 for such events. On November 6, 2003, it happened again.

Sewage ran out her door in a stinky waterfall when Hesketh arrived home from her job as a medical billing clerk. Filth spewed upward from every toilet, shower and sink in the house, and there was no way to make it stop. "It looked like the fountains at Metrocenter," she recalls.

City spill reports dramatically understate the crisis - -according to city records, just 10 gallons spilled. But sewage was midway to Hesketh's knees throughout her home by the time the city unclogged a main blocked with tree roots, rags and grease. By then, her walls, floors and furniture were saturated with what she and her neighbors had flushed down their toilets.

City officials denied responsibility, saying roots that penetrated the main came from a tree planted on Hesketh's property. They also blamed an addition to Hesketh's house built over a sewer cleanout line that might have diverted the mess into the yard instead of the house.

With nowhere else to go, Hesketh, 55, and her 30-year-old son, who has a developmental disability and can't live on his own, slept on couches at her sister's house while she fought the city. Last fall, she sued. She settled last month for $91,000, substantially less than the $160,000 she'd demanded so she could move into a new home.

City officials say they're doing Hesketh a favor. "There really is a difference between what the city is legally responsible for and what it chooses to do," says David Damron, a private-practice lawyer who defended the city. "If it's an issue of whether or not the city was negligent, the city was not negligent." It was the same story in 2001, when city officials blamed roots for the first flood and told Hesketh that a house filled with her neighbors' sewage is her problem, not theirs.

Hesketh isn't satisfied, but says she settled because she couldn't afford to take the case to trial. "It won't pay off the mortgage, it won't pay my lawyer's fees, it won't pay for a lot of things," she says. "I still say that the sewer lines need to be replaced in that area. There's no two ways about it. They will not fix the sewer lines here because it's almost like, 'Well, there's not enough demand to have it fixed right now, so we won't.' I don't think they care, because the people who live in these areas don't have a lot of money to begin with."

Spill records suggest Hesketh is right.

All told, Hesketh and her neighbors have lived through five overflows in four years, all within three blocks of each other on the same street. On the same day Hesketh's house was flooded in 2001, city crews responded to an overflow at an address two blocks away. Seven months later, there was a spill one block from her home. In May 2004, the city installed a new manhole in front of Hesketh's house to allow easier access for sewer-cleaning crews. One month later, the sewer overflowed again, just one block away. City records don't indicate the cause of one overflow, but the others were blamed on grease or roots or a combination of the two.

The clay sewer lines were installed in the 1950s. It's difficult to escape the conclusion that the neighborhood needs a major, expensive fix. But with so many problems elsewhere, the city isn't going to dig up these lines anytime soon. The city is replacing pipes based on their age and structural integrity, but there isn't enough money to fix everything, or to keep up with maintenance.

Grease, roots and assorted debris that finds its way into the sewer system cause most overflows. The city has a goal of cleaning every pipe once every four years, but that doesn't always happen, nor is it always sufficient. Some pipes, particularly in areas with lots of grease-producing restaurants, need cleaning once a year or more (in Tempe, sewer officials say they've cleaned some downtown lines once a week). Roots can also grow alarmingly fast and enter clay pipes through failing joints.

Last year, the city analyzed sewage overflows that occurred between 1996 and 2002 and blamed more than half on grease. Roots were the second-most common cause of blockages, accounting for 113 overflows. Another 94 occurred in pipes that didn't have enough slope to move sewage along. In 63 cases, the city didn't establish a cause beyond noting that blocked lines were located in alleys or easements.

Annie DeChance, spokesperson for the city water department, says there's not much the city can do about flat sewer lines, where the slightest obstruction can cause sewage to back up and spill. "There really isn't a fix for flat sewers except for maintenance," she says. "We know where those areas are, for the most part, and we try to do regular, routine maintenance on it because we know it's a problem, but we can't be everywhere all the time."

Sewers that overflow in easements or alleys are likely getting blocked by roots, DeChance says. "If we can gain access, we put liners in, and that will help with the situation," she says. The city often blames restaurants, homeowners and apartment dwellers for blockages caused by grease. Between 2000 and 2004, the city paid nearly $1.4 million to settle 92 claims for damages caused by overflowing sewers.

Tracy Egoscue, executive director of the Santa Monica Baykeeper organization, which sued Los Angeles to force improvements to a system that leaked millions of gallons in more than 4,500 spills between 1994 and 2004, is wary of claims that sewage overflows are anyone's fault but the entity that owns the pipes.

"For the most part, what we've seen -- or what we've suspected -- is a lot of these sewer spills are just finger-pointing," Egoscue says. "'It's not our problem, it's the roots. It's not our problem, it's the restaurants.' That's kind of like a parent saying, when the child burns down the house, 'It's not really my fault -- the child was playing with matches.' Well, it is your fault. You're the parent; it's your house. It comes down to: Are you maintaining your sewer system?"

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Bruce Rushton