DOJ deal raises questions about home and business plumbing issues

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 38 views 

A section of the proposed consent decree negotiated between the United States Department of Justice and the city of Fort Smith could have a negative impact on plumbing businesses and consumers, according to industry insiders who spoke with The City Wire.

And while much focus has been placed on the wet weather overflows, significant time Monday night was spent discussing dry weather overflows and the EPA's proposal for how the city could address the overflows in the future. First, the city will have to begin monitoring overflows in wet and dry weather situations and report all overflows to the Environmental Protection Agency. In addition, the assessments will focus on finding the dry weather blockages and intrusions in lines that cause overflows during dry periods. These can include grease blockages and roots that have grown into residential and commercial water lines over periods of years or decades.

The assessments will range from smoke tests of lines to CCTV (closed-circuit television) inspection of lines in search of obstructions. On lines owned by the city, Fort Smith Utilities will replace the impacted lines as part of a regular operations and maintenance program to be established under the consent decree at a cost not yet determined, according to Fort Smith Utilities Director Steve Parke.

But on lines owned privately, say by a homeowner or a business owner, those individuals will be responsible for covering costs of any deficiencies found within the individual or business's plumbing outside of easements. The costs, Parke said, could range from $1,500 to $3,000 per incident if property owners are found to have grease or root obstructions in their lines.

Michelle Cernak, owner of Westark Plumbing in Fort Smith, said while the city may be able to find the defects in their own lines, it will not be so easy for the crews to find the defects in private lines.

"I just don't understand how the city is going to know… are they watching for the plumbing trucks? How do they know where the problems are?"

Cernak, who was a member of the Fort Smith Water and Sewer Operations Study in 2012, said she was shocked by the high cost on the consumer, with private line repairs and replacements discussed as well as possible doubling of sewer service rates. She said it was contrary to what individuals on the study commission were told two years ago.

"I guess I was drinking the Kool Aid," she said. "It sounded like they had a good plan in place and the overall findings were that the city was doing what they should be doing. There was no mention of an impact being this high on the consumer."

While there may not have been a mention of it, Cernak said the impact on local plumbing businesses like her own could be significant in terms of profits, though it is not guaranteed.

"It could be (a windfall), but it could also be (a tough situation) for low income individuals in older homes or rental situations who haven't been maintaining the lines, with grease and diapers in the lines, leaving us to go in and clear it. … Plumbing companies could make a buck, but we could lose a buck, too."

She said it is because often times, a locally-owned company like Westark may replace the line and if the individual cannot afford to cover the expense, the business owner may work out a deal for payments over time.

Mark Chamberlain, owner of May Avenue Plumbing in Fort Smith, said often the arrangements rarely work out as intended.

"I would do the work all the time and expect people to do the right thing and pay me a little bit each month, but they don't do it and I can't swallow (the loss). I can't afford to be putting out money like that. I can't take the loss any more," he said.

And even though the city is establishing a $400,000 fund to assist low-income households replace faulty lines on their private property, Chamberlain said often the low income home owners will try to do repairs themselves first. The repairs, he said, are typically faulty and not up to standard and result in higher repair costs than if the individual could have afforded to have a plumber come out in the first place.

For that reason, and just the typical amount a plumber costs which can run $200 or more an hour depending on the type of repairs needed, Chamberlain said he does not expect the city's fund to go far.

Even if the fund were set up at $1 million or more, he said there should be a streamlined approach to allow low income citizens to get the repairs needed in a timely manner and in some cases, in emergencies.

"Let's say you live in a deprived, low income area and your sewer line goes bad. Here's the thing – if you can't get it opened up and they need services right then, you can't wait six months or even a week to get it approved. That's one of the problems with the program that we have. … If there is a program out there like that, we need an individual you can call to come out and look at it and say yes or no. But people can't wait."

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