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Wasting away: City won’t fix private sewer damaged by Sandy

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All they want is a newer sewer.

A system of private sewer lines beneath a Sheepshead Bay block has been broken and clogged with sand since superstorm Sandy, and the city refuses to help, leaving neighbors to deal with human waste overflowing onto their property.

Residents of the block say the city is neglecting what could be a potential health hazard.

“Every time it rains this manhole overflows and s--- seeps out all over the court,” said Richard Bowers, who lives right next to a manhole from the private sewer line that his house is not connected to. “I can’t keep my windows open.”

The interior of the block, bordered by Shore Parkway and Emmons Avenue to the north and south, and Batchelder and Brown streets to the east and west, contains a court formed by three narrow, private streets aligned in the shape of an “H” — Losee Terrace, Gunnison Court, and Stanton Road.

The houses inside the court are connected to two private sewer lines flowing out onto public lines. Residents say one of the private lines is clogged and the other is broken.

Bowers and his neighbors say that every night, after people use the bathroom, shower, or do the laundry, human waste rises up into manholes, creating an unbearable odor that permeates every home on or near the court. It gets worse when the weather is wet. The clogged and broken sewers overflow when it rains, sending their foul contents spilling onto people’s property, and one woman even had raw sewage seep into her home during a particularly strong storm.

Block residents have contacted several elected officials and city agencies since Sandy — including the Build It Back program — but the city has washed its hands of the problem, saying it is only responsible for replacing public sewer lines, not private ones.

A section of the New York City Administrative Code states that “it shall be the duty of the Department of Environmental Protection to control, maintain, supervise and repair, and to inspect periodically, private sewers or drains as defined in subdivision a hereof, provided, however, that the department shall have no obligation or duty to replace or reconstruct any such sewer or drain. The cost of such control, maintenance, supervision, repair and inspection shall be borne by the city, within the amounts duly appropriated therefor.”

Residents say that when workers from the Department of Environmental Protection came to take a look last summer, they said there was nothing they could do. A department spokesman said that the agency is responsible for the operation, maintenance and repair of city-owned sewers, but that private sewer lines must be maintained by their owners.

Sandy damaged many of the homes on the block, and some have been abandoned. A few of the court’s residents tried to pay to fix the clogged pipe, spending $1,200 to have the sewage sucked out of one of the pipes, but a financial dispute with the contractor halted the project. Paying to have the entire private sewer fixed is an option that most cannot afford.

Residents like Bowers, whose homes are not on the private line but are still affected by the backup and nasty smells, say they have no interest in taking legal action against their neighbors.

“We’re all working class people here,” said Bowers, a cab driver who has lived in his house his entire life. “There are a lot of people here who had their homes destroyed by Sandy and there are people here who live paycheck-to-paycheck. I know they can’t pay for this. The city needs to help us out.”

Build It Back and Councilman Chaim Deutsch (D–Sheepshead Bay) plan to hold a stakeholders meeting in a few weeks to discuss the recovery program’s plans to elevate and rebuild coastal Sheepshead Bay homes like they are currently doing in Gerritsen Beach, and locals hope to discuss their Sandy-related sewer problems as well.

A Build It Back spokesman said that such private sewer lines were installed decades ago when many coastal properties were vacation bungalows, and were not designed for the kind of daily use they are receiving now.

Build It Back plans to make changes to the existing infrastructure, including sewage, and is likely to tackle all of the block’s issues at once because of the tight-fit nature of the homes. But no start date has been set yet, and the notion of another meeting failed to excite one of the affected homeowners.

“Another meeting?” asked Mike Rodriguez, a semi-retired school crossing guard. “We’ve been doing this for three years. All you can do is try and laugh it off, but it’s not funny when you have to stand here after it rains.”

Reach reporter Eric Faynberg at (718) 260–2508 or by e-mail at efaynberg@cnglocal.com. Follow him on Twitter @ericfaynberg.
Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019
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