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Continued: Does sewer rule stink?

  • Article by: JAMES ELI SHIFFER , Star Tribune
  • Last update: October 3, 2009 - 8:56 PM

Ron Schmidt's favorite video of late is just a few minutes long. It starts with the camera traveling down a slimy tunnel over a stream of water. The climax comes when the camera reaches a few glistening rock-like formations and uneven joints in an otherwise unobstructed tunnel.

While it resembles a journey into someone's intestines, this video is a city of Golden Valley production starring the inside of the pipe that connects Schmidt's house to the city's sewer.

In Schmidt's view, informed by his 30 years as a plumbing inspector for the city of Minneapolis, the pipe is still performing its role admirably. But Golden Valley contends that the pipe is damaged and has to be repaired at Schmidt's expense, a $5,000 proposition, or else he won't be able to sell his house.

Hundreds of homeowners in Golden Valley have heard that message since 2007 in what's likely the most aggressive local effort in the Twin Cities to stop pollution from leaky old sewers. Video inspections are mandatory for people who want to put their homes on the market, and 90 percent of them are failing their video inspection because the pipes are blocked by tree roots, have collapsed or are otherwise vulnerable to seepage from outside water.

This phenomenon, called inflow and infiltration, is such a strain on wastewater plants and a contributor to pollution that the Metropolitan Council, which operates regional sewer plants, demanded action to fix it. Many communities have focused on diverting sump pump outflow and storm water from sanitary sewers.

Golden Valley started its televised inspection program in 2007. Since then, the city has inspected 1,832 of its approximately 8,000 sewers at homes, businesses and other properties. Just 180 passed. Another 1,300 sewers came into compliance after repairs or replacement by property owners, said Jeannine Clancy, the city's director of public works. Some assessments have run as high as $13,000.

Schmidt, who retired in 1997 and who is 70, has already spent more than $2,600 to replace 30 feet of his pipe after the city did a major reconstruction project on his street. The city says he needs to replace the rest, because mineral deposits and pipe joints that don't quite line up are signs of leakage. Schmidt thinks that's unnecessary.

"How do they even know it's leaking anymore?" he said. "There isn't probably a sewer in the city that's totally tight."

Golden Valley Mayor Linda Loomis, who was reelected in 2007 after a battle over the sewer issue, said that the council had no idea how many sewers would turn out to be substandard when it adopted the ordinance, but that action was necessary to deal with clear water coming into the sewer system.

Is the 90 percent failure rate a sign that the city's criteria are too rigid? "I don't know," she said.

Clancy said the high failure rate reflects the city's poor soils and aging sewer services, most of which were installed during Golden Valley's rapid growth in the 1950s and 1960s and haven't been touched since. City officials point out that they spend $500,000 each year leak-proofing their sewers, but private property owners control more mileage of sewer (147) than the city (113).

"If we want to resolve the issue, we have to address every source," said Jeff Oliver, the Golden Valley city engineer.

Oliver reviewed the two videos of Schmidt's sewer pipe last week. While Oliver said the condition of the Schmidt sewer was not as bad as some, which have large holes or are even missing whole sections, Oliver said the stalactite-type buildup at the joints is a telltale sign of invading water.

Loomis said she doesn't relish the task of forcing property owners to spend thousands of dollars on sewer pipes that haven't caused them any problems. But the possibility of sanctions by the Met Council looms, she said.

The Met Council offers a maximum of $2,000, or half of the cost of a sewer project, to help with the cost. So far, 62 property owners have received the grants, Clancy said.

Schmidt isn't planning to move right now, so he can wait on obtaining the city's certificate of compliance needed to sell his home of 40 years. But he's still puzzled by the city's opinion of his pipe.

"We've never had a problem with our sewer," he said.

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