City still looking for flooding answers

Published 10:29 am Wednesday, August 5, 2009

IRONTON — City officials once again heard the plight of angry and frustrated homeowners desperate for answers as to why constant basement flooding on Ironton’s south side continues to wreak havoc on their lives, possessions and livelihoods.

In front of a standing-room only gathering, city council’s Public Utilities Committee along with Mayor Rich Blankenship heard pleas and multiple theories from residents wanting a remedy to the problem that has plagued many for nearly two months.

Since mid-June, residents primarily on the city’s south side, have fallen victim to flooding following numerous hard rains which backed-up the city’s antiquated combined sewer system that moves both storm and sewer water.

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The backups resulted in storm water and raw sewage, including feces, grass and toilet paper, inundating many basements through drain pipes and toilets. Many basements were left under several feet of water that left nauseating smells and caused tens of thousands of dollars in flood damage.

Blankenship started off the meeting reassuring those of the seriousness of the issue at hand.

“I want to get this fixed as much as you guys want me too. It has been a headache,” Blankenship said before using a blackboard to show how a combined sewer overflow system works. “This situation is mind boggling.”

Those who attended Tuesday’s meeting testified their basements have flooded three or four times in the past seven weeks. A quick survey showed that heavy rains on June 12, July 11 and July 30 resulted in a majority of the flooding incidents. Several said the flooding has gotten so bad they are afraid even to look down in their basements anymore.

Kim Schwab, who lives in the 2400 block of South Tenth Street, gave an emotional speech to the committee on how the flooding has affected not only her and her family’s lives, but her own business as well.

“My basement is my business,” Schwab said. “I can’t go on like this any longer.”

Blankenship again stressed the urgency of the situation, giving his assurances it is his number one priority.

“This is priority number one,” the mayor said. “This is a problem that I don’t know the answer to, but I will try everything I can to find it.”

With the ground so saturated, rains have been so heavy and steady at times that the city’s wastewater facility has been running at its full capacity of 4 million gallons during each and every rainfall.

Ironton Waste Water Superintendent John Haskins gave statistics showing that for every tenth-of-an-inch of rain the city receives, the wastewater facility will be at 4 million gallons. Recent rains have dropped 2 inches of water in 15 minutes and five inches of rain in a 30 hour period.

The plant runs around 1.7 million gallons under normal conditions.

However, many longtime residents believe the heavy rains of 2009 are not the only reason their basements are flooding for the first time in recent memory. Several are convinced that somewhere in Ironton’s network of sewer and storm water lines a main combined sewer overflow line collapsed or is blocked.

Why the city is not fully convinced a blocked or collapsed line is the reason behind the recent flooding based on visual and electronic testing, they did not rule out the theory.

“Somewhere we are picking up new water into our storm water system,” Haskins said while taking questions and explaining how the city is visually and electronically testing each line for leaks and blockage.

Others suggested the city look into recent construction at Ohio University Southern or Ironton High School to see if something happened on either of those two sites. Another felt rehabilitation crews on U.S. 52 might have caused a possible collapse with their heavy equipment.

However, the most common name thrown out Tuesday as a possible culprit was the former River Valley Hospital site.

Many in attendance believe flooding problems started when the building was torn down and backfilled earlier this year. They even went as far as asking if the Ironton Port Authority – who owns the site – and its contractor could make public their report on the condition of the lines before it was backfilled.

Representatives from the IPA were in not attendance Tuesday, but Haskins said he believes water collected on the former River Valley site is not affecting the recent flooding as the line valves under the property are shut and the water is just pooling in the area.

One temporary solution offered again was the installation of check valves to homeowners in the area.

Announced on July 23, Blankenship laid out plans to install preventative water valves at any home plagued by flooding the past two months. The valves, officially called extendable backwater valves, prevent sewage backup into a residence or building as a result of a plugged sewer system, excess volume in the system or groundwater flooding.

They are designed to be installed easily outside a home, business or other structure without the use of a costly manhole and are easily cleanable.

The extendable valves consist of a T-shaped valve body with an attached flapper similar to ones inside a toilet tank. In the event of back pressure caused by plugs or overcapacity, the flapper blocks the reverse flow and prevents a sewage backup.

The cost of purchasing the PVC backwater valves and installing them in the alleyways behind the affected homes was initially to be paid entirely by the city through wastewater funds. Blankenship had hired Ironton-based Mi-De-Con to perform the installations.

However, with more than 130 residents already on a waiting list and with each installation costing $6,500 according to Blankenship, the city does not have the funding currently available for each installation as a majority of wastewater funds are earmarked for the mandated reconstruction of the city’s entire sewer network.

Committee chairperson Leo Johnson floated the option of having the city “offer a partial credit” to homeowners who wanted to install the value using their own, and possibly cheaper, labor source.

His idea received a cool reception by much of the crowd saying the city should instead attempt to find a cheaper labor alternative to lower their price. Johnson had no choice but to inform those in attendance that the city would have to possibly create a selection method as to who receives a city installed backwater valve and who does not.

“We have to set criteria. We have to,” Johnson said. “This will be one of the hardest things I have ever done, but we will have to say no to some people.”

The rash of basement flooding comes just as the city embarks on replacing all 61 miles of its heavily-dated, combined sanitary sewer lines over the next 17 years.

The $23 million, five-phase project has the city completing design approval by 2011 and with a July 2012 construction start date.

Phase one would separate storm and sanitary sewers between Orchard Street and Hanging Rock while eliminating both the Nash and First Streets combined sewer overflow and the Orchard Street combined sewer overflow.

The areas that experienced flooding due to the recent storms on the south side are part of the phase three.

The mayor again urged anyone who experienced sewer backup in their homes from any of the recent storms to call his office immediately at (740) 532-3833 to be placed on the backup valve list.

The city is also asking affected homeowners to complete a Lawrence County Emergency Services Intake Sheet and submit it to the city in the attempt to garner state or federal emergency funding