Sunday, August 31, 2003

Homeowner's horror: sewage backups

Peter Bronson

Jay Hicks has an instant soup nightmare. Just add water, and his three-bedroom house on Kenker Place in Cheviot makes the Amityville Horror look like a model home in Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood.

Whenever it rains hard, his house is possessed by raw sewage. It backs up into his basement a foot deep, usually once or twice a year. This year, it's eight times and counting.

"It shoots up two or three feet in the air. It looks like a fountain down there," he says. "As soon as it starts, I ask my wife to get the kids and leave for two days while I clean the house."

The backyard also floods with raw sewage, creating a good environment for maggots and mushrooms, but not for children. "We just don't go out there," he said.

His problem is an extreme case. He was unaware when he bought the home - his first - that an old 30-inch combined main that carries sewage and storm water is just a foot below his basement floor. His 1933 house has four taps into the pipe - turning his basement into the "overflow tank'' for the neighborhood.

But Hicks is not alone on Backup Street.

"Its horrible, it's gross, it's unhealthy," said Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune. "There are thousands, even tens of thousands who have the same problem."

Rob Fredericks, an aide to Commissioner John Dowlin, called the problem "gigantic." He said the Metropolitan Sewer District has had about 2,500 complaints this year, but as many as 10,000 homeowners in the county have backups. "Three out of four don't report it because they want to sell their house someday, and they don't want a public record of having sewage in the basement."

Cheviot Safety Services Director Steve Neal says it's his worst problem. "It's their sewer, they should fix it," Neal said of the county.

Portune said, "I don't think there's any doubt the county has a responsibility here."

But Fredericks and Dowlin said they are both wrong.

A 1968 deal, approved by Cheviot, gave all storm water pipes to local municipalities, as the county took over sanitary sewers. In 1995, the county agreed to fix combined sewers, if local governments pay half.

"Mr. Hicks and all his neighbors would have no problem if Cheviot would live up to its responsibility," Fredericks said.

Neal said Cheviot can't afford half of $500,000 needed to fix the sewer line.

"Whether Cheviot can afford it or not is beyond me," Dowlin said. "But we have an agreement and we have to live by that."

He said it would be unfair to bill all ratepayers for Cheviot's problems. And thousands of homeowners could demand county repairs for their sewer backups.

Portune wants to change the rules at a meeting on Sept. 8. But Dowlin is right: Cheviot is on the hook.

The MSD is working on a plan to fix the Hicks home, Dowlin said. Or the county may buy it and build an overflow tank, so that homes nearby are not flooded, Fredericks said. "That stuff has to go somewhere."

"It's like beating your head against the wall," Hicks said.

He's trying to organize his neighbors to get Cheviot to pay for repairs. And he dreads the next rainstorm.

The scariest thing is not the geysers of sewage in his basement. It's the way public officials spout a fountain of raw excuses that smell worse than the stuff in Jay Hicks' basement.

E-mail or call 768-8301.

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