Cracked service lines revealed with smoker

Wednesday, August 25, 2010
On Jones Circle after smoke was pumped into sewers and the fire department responded, Lewisburg Water and Wastewater Assistant Superintendent Pepper Biggers, left, confers with Department Superintendent Kenneth Carr, center, as John Coward, right, of the Lewisburg Gas Department, looks on.

Amid the search for details on Lewisburg's pending water rate hike, the sewer service on Monday continued its periodic search for leaking pipes and it led to some remarkable reactions.

A grandmother called the fire department because she and her family thought their house was on fire, and smoke started billowing from the front yards of at least three home sites on Jones Circle.

The Water and Wastewater Department has a smoke-blowing machine that forces smoke through sewers. If pipes are broken, the smoke comes out -- revealing the location of broken sewers. But if there's no backflow prevention system in a house, then smoke goes in the house and out a commode, up a basement drain and places like a vanity and kitchen sink if there's no water in the water traps, or if the traps don't exist.

Four-year-old Ronnie Lyttle, described as the "man of the house" by his grandmother, Jackie Cross of Jones Circle, went running to her on Monday morning saying the house was on fire, she said. Cross called the fire department, but firefighters drove back to the station without much delay.

"Y'all scared us to death," Cross said -- although several utility employees said someone knocked on the Cross home's door and there was no answer, so the work proceeded.

Across the street, city Sewage Collection Supervisor Jerry Johnson was directing his crew with the smoke blower while utility workman Charles "Moose" Adair sprayed white paint on green grass around five places of one broken service pipe extending from a vacant house at 815 Jones Circle. The tops of the old clay pipes were broken away and visible from the surface of the ground as indicated by a photo with this story.

So, the breaks were obvious and it was clear that rain washing cross the front lawn would drain into the sanitary sewer lines, into the city sewage collection system and dilute raw sewage as it flowed to the treatment plant. That's the same plant that state and federal environmental regulation enforcers say should be enlarged at a cost estimated at $13 million. The project includes a big holding tank to receive the excess wastewater so that after a rainstorm, the diluted sewage can be treated before it's discharged into Big Rock Creek - that is, instead of allowing it to pass through as only partially treated wastewater.

"This one," Water and Wastewater Department Superintendent Kenneth Carr said of the house at 815 Jones Circle, "is just flat out un-occupiable until we give them approval" for resumed use of the city sewer tap.

"This one does not need to be turned back on until it's fixed," Carr said.

Across Jones Circle from the Cross residence are two empty lots where houses once stood, according to Pepper Biggers, the department's assistant superintendent. Smoke arose from those lots' sewer taps that had not been closed years ago. The grass there was thick and when smoke billowed up from the ground from the broken residential service lines it looked like there was a grass fire.

The sewage collection supervisor was asked how many other properties in Lewisburg have such a situation, and Johnson replied, "Several." Told that several is defined as three or more, but not many, he was asked if there were at least a dozen in town. "I'd say so," Johnson replied.

"Definitely," Carr said to substantiate his sewage collection supervisor's observation. However, Carr refuted information received last week that there are buildings on Lewisburg's public square that drain rain from roofs to sanitary sewers.

Those circumstances of stormwater and ground water seeping into the sewage collection system were discussed Thursday afternoon with Carr, Biggers, utility board chairman Hershel Davis, and others on the board. Discussion revealed that repair of all pipes leading to the sewage treatment plant could cost $150 million, or $137 million more than the cost of doubling the treatment plant's capacity as well as building the wastewater holding tank.

That $13 million project had been seen as costing an average water customer $7-8 more per month so money could be raised to repay bonds sold to finance the sewage plant expansion. On Monday, Carr acknowledged the department is getting complaints from people saying that if they're not getting sewer service then they don't feel obliged to help pay for the expansion of the treatment plant.