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Votes

Letter: Digging into Sewer Problems

Having spent several frustrating years dealing with the sewer problems, I disagree with Jay Spiegel’s conclusions about responsibility for sewer line problems under public streets (but do support his views on the continuing need for more transparency and accountability in public bodies that purport to act for the County’s residents).

In the Mount Vernon area, most sewer line problems are caused by the infiltration of tree roots through the Orangeburg pipes that were standard before the 1980s. But when those lines are under the street, roots aren’t usually a problem, and the pipes would likely not need replacing in that area. (And to do so would be unreasonably expensive for a homeowner, especially when the county pipe is across the street from his property, because it involves the County and State bureaucracies, lots of time, lots of permits, lots of costs.)

In my case, after numerous cleanouts and repeated problems, a camera inspection showed that in fact the sewer line going from my property to the recently replaced county sewer line was several feet above the connection. Was that my fault? Hardly. Did the company that replaced the county line a few years ago actually install the new line exactly where the old one was? Or had the County knowingly approved the original improper installation when the house was built more than 60 years ago? And if the County discovered this flaw when it replaced the County pipe, why was I not notified? Since I never experienced problems in the three decades I had lived here before the County’s line was replaced, my guess would be the former. But in both cases, the fault lies with the County, not with the homeowner.

As for Dominion’s “insurance” policy, if one reads the fine print, the homeowner has virtually no protection. Dominion only agrees to fix clogs (ie., snake the line — which itself could cause damage, according to sewer experts , and perhaps “repair” small sections of pipe (though it doesn’t provide for county inspection of its work). The coverage does not include replacement of sewer lines. Dominion further reserves the right to deny coverage for reasons of its own (and anyone with old pipes would likely automatically be denied, as it would if it discovered the too-large drop under the public street). It further notes that “ accessible cleanout(s) installed to plumbing code is/are necessary” — i.e., in order to get coverage the homeowner would have to spend a bundle up front bringing the property up to code (cleanouts were not required when much of the County’s housing was built). A homeowner would likely pay $2-3,000 up front just to have his (already conforming) pipes camera’ed and cleanouts installed so he could qualify for the measly insurance coverage. More important, Dominion’s coverage is limited to $5000 — about the cost of a couple of snakings and camera inspections. (In my case, I was told it would cost $16-20,000 just to dig up the public street and reset the line, in addition to $7,500 to $10,000 to replace the line in my yard and add cleanouts. There was no evidence of pipe failure under the street.) Dominion further does not provide insurance for multiple dwellings (like many of those in the Gum Springs area where it seems unlikely that many homeowners would be able to afford to fix the pipes under the property, much less under the County’s roads.) Caveat emptor: Dominion’s coverage is not the answer.

And how did the County arrive at the estimate of $15-$18 million that would be needed to dig under the streets every year? (Unlikely there would be many under-street problems in areas of the County built in the last 30 years). If this is just another “ballpark” estimate (like the County’s “estimate” of $58,000 to fence half an acre for a dog park — cost to be paid by dogowners, natch) — then I fear this could be just another attempt to blow off real problems.

Bottom line: if the County is responsible for a problem, the County should fix it — and it would appear from my experience that the County might have made some mistakes that need fixing. I believe Ms. Cox has flagged a genuine problem that deserves far more than “zero deference” from Supervisor Hyland.

Mary Tracy

Alexandria