One rainy day last summer, a Brooklyn mother of four, pregnant with her fifth child, heard the sound of water gushing into her basement. She scrambled down the stairs and nearly cried. The supplies she’d carefully prepared for the new baby were covered in raw sewage.
“It was feces. It was the week before I had a baby and I had everything cleaned out, washed—undershirts, pajamas, car seats, carriages, strollers, everything,” said the mother, who did not want to give her name for fear it would delay payment on a damage claim she filed with the city.
“I started taking video to show to my husband so he could tell me how I should stop it, and then I was like ‘Oh, my God, kids, run up stairs’ – because it was up to my ankles already,” the Midwood resident said.
A few miles away Queens resident, Jennifer Medina, 48, said backups are also a problem in her neighborhood. She said at least once a year, sewage floods her basement and a heavy, nauseating stench fills the entire house.
“It’s always been a problem, more lately than ever,” said Medina, who said backups have been a problem since her husband’s family bought the house in the South Ozone Park neighborhood more than 38 years ago.
Most New Yorkers dread having to go out on rainy days, but for some city residents, staying home isn’t much better. In some neighborhoods, during heavy rain, raw sewage gurgles up through basement toilets, showers and drains, leaving cellars awash in raw sewage and the smell of untreated human waste permeating homes. And for many of those residents, the problem is nothing new.
Medina said she’s made numerous calls to 311–the city’s hotline for non-life-threatening assistance–asking for help with the disgusting and costly mess.
“It’s like they just don’t give a damn. They act like it’s not their problem,” said Medina referring to the city’s response.*
While raw sewage discharges into the rivers and waterways surrounding New York City have garnered wide attention, residential sewage backups–which have plagued some city neighborhoods for decades–have received far less attention. The problem is most prevalent in Brooklyn, Queens and parts of Staten Island, but occur in neighborhoods across all five boroughs.
In recent years, the city has attempted to tackle the problem, with mixed results. Now the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is stepping in. Last August, the agency issued an administrative compliance order, forcing New York City to reckon with longstanding problems.
“The city has a documented history of basement backups, sewage going into residences and business basements,” says Douglas McKenna, chief of the EPA’s Water Compliance Branch, referring to data provided to the EPA by the city.
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According to the order, the city “has not addressed the violations at a pace and scale necessary to protect its residents.” The agency says the backups expose residents to raw sewage, a human health hazard. The backups also violate the Clean Water Act by allowing untreated wastewater to discharge into nearby waterways.
By issuing the order, which McKenna said is not punitive, the EPA is requiring the city to comply with the Clean Water Act, to create and implement an operation and maintenance plan, to better document complaints and to provide increased transparency regarding efforts to address those complaints. He said the order also formalizes work the City is already doing.
According to a letter provided by the EPA, the City received the order on September 2nd and was given 120 days to implement an operation and maintenance plan. The plan is required to include an outline of steps the City will take to prevent and better respond to backups, with “the ultimate goal of elimination of Sewer Backups systemwide.” In the letter, dated January 23, the EPA approved a city-proposed extension to extend the plan’s submission deadline to May 31, 2017.
McKenna also said the EPA is also looking for more transparency from the city. As an example, he pointed to “State of the Sewer” reports, which include data on the number of sewer backups experienced by borough, as well as information on remedies implemented by the city. The publicly available reports, which McKenna said should continue, are available for 2012 and 2013 but are not available for more recent years.
The January 23 letter indicates the City has proposed replacing the EPA-required “State of the Sewer” report—which was due to the EPA on February 15th—with a dashboard hosted on the DEP website. The EPA has not yet approved that proposal and is asking the City for more information in order to ensure the information is publicly accessible on the DEP’s website and includes a clear link, including instructions on how to access the data.
The New York Bureau of Water and Sewer did not comment on specific questions related to reported sewer backups or the EPA order, but in an emailed statement, a spokesperson said, “New York City has invested billions of dollars in upgrades to our wastewater systems and our data-driven, proactive approach to operation and maintenance has resulted in significant improvements to both performance and reliability, including a 33 percent reduction in sewer backups.”
The DEP spokesperson also said the department has invested nearly than $16 billion in upgrades to the city’s wastewater system over the last 15 years and has implemented programs to reduce the amount of household grease entering the system, as well as a program to help homeowners maintain private sewer lines.
“Feces comes out and everything just smells”
Homes are typically connected to the city sewer system by lines that run from the house to the city’s pipes under the street. Because those connections are located on private property, homeowners are responsible for their maintenance. According to city estimates, more than 75 percent of reported sewer problems are the result of problems with private sewer lines.
The DEP spokesperson said the department has invested nearly than $16 billion in upgrades to the City’s wastewater system over the last 15 years and has implemented programs to reduce the amount of household grease entering the system, as well as a program to help homeowners maintain private sewer lines.
Grease can accumulate and stick to interior sides of sewer lines, restricting and even blocking the flow of wastewater.
But the Medinas and their neighbors say grease is not the problem in their Queens neighborhood, nor is the blockage in their private sewer lines.
“We spend money on plumbers to come and look,” Mrs. Medina say. “They tell us the problem’s not us, it’s from the city, but we have to pay for the call anyway.”
Her husband, Roberto, was raised in the house they now live in, which he says his mother purchased in the early 1970’s.
“I kind of just grew up with it,” he says, referring to the backups. “I learned to live with it.”
“The way we got around it was that we ceramic-tiled the basement and that helps with the cleanup, because we mop and bleach it,” he says.
“We installed a backflow and it helps, but it’s an expensive proposition,” he says. Backflows and other flow control valves are installed by homeowners to prevent sewage from coming back into their homes even when the city’s system backs up.
According to John Good, a customer service technician with Balkan Plumbing, the cost for valves many residents have had to install can run between $2,500 and $3,000 or higher, depending on each home’s construction. Backflow prevention valves—sometimes called backflow, butterfly or backup valves—include a mechanism that closes when wastewater begins to flow in from the city sewer.
The Medinas say they’ve spent thousands of dollars and countless hours dealing with the problem.
After living in her Bronx home for more than 26 years, Francis Ferrer says she knows there’s a problem if her toilet doesn’t flush or flushes slowly.
“My neighbors will come over and say ‘Are you having a problem, ‘cause we’re having a problem?’ and then you know,” she says.
“And it’s been the same for 26 years. There’s nothing you can do. It’s just the way it is,” says Ferrer. “Feces comes out and everything just smells, because it’s actually in the house because the trap is in the house.”
Larry Minichello has lived in Brooklyn’s Sheepshead Bay neighborhood for 38 years. He says he got tired of dealing with recurring sewer backups and installed a backflow valve years ago.
“If you don’t have that type of valve to prevent that water from coming back in, you’re going to get burnt in this neighborhood – there’s no doubt about it,” he says.
But, he says, even the valve didn’t help during a storm last summer.
“What happened is when I lifted that up a little, it just squirted up and it was sewage. I had to bang it down with my hammer and kept it down. It was a horrible night,” he says.
New York City Council Member Chaim Deutsch represents Minichello and his neighbors in Brooklyn’s 48th district. After heavy rains last summer, Deutsh organized a community meeting in order to call attention to the problem.
“People just got used to living with this and expecting that whenever it rains heavy, they had to check their basement,” says Deutsch.
He says the meeting gave the DEP an opportunity to hear from residents first-hand. Residents learned about valves they could install and insurance available to cover repairs to homeowner’s sewer lines. Insurance is offered to homeowners by American Water Resources through their monthly water bills.
But even those who enroll aren’t covered for damage caused by problems in the city’s sewer lines, and property damage due to backups isn’t covered regardless of where the problem lies.
“We cover repairs to clogs on the customer-owned sewer line but damage to the customer’s personal property inside the home as a result of the backup is not covered under the program,” said Richard Barnes, spokesperson for American Water Resources, who said about one in three New York City homeowners is enrolled in the program.
“None of that’s a fix,” Deutsch says. “At the end of the day, people shouldn’t be getting sewer backups. We need to do everything possible so that we don’t have to live like this until something more permanent gets done.”
To that end, Deutsch encourages residents to continue to report backups.
“People got so used to it that they don’t call 311 and if you don’t call 311 to report that you have a sewer backup, it’s like it never happened,” he says, adding that funding for infrastructure improvements often go to neighborhoods who have documented complaints.
Progress, but not fast enough
Despite ongoing problems, some say the city has made progress.
“Over the past several years, they’ve made significant progress in dropping their backups by over 50 percent. However, we felt that there was a need for them to continue this progress and take another look and come up with additional things that might reduce their backups further,” McKenna says.
Minichello notes that the sewer system is serving a much larger population than it was designed to handle.
“I don’t think it would be fair to say the city’s not doing their job, because it doesn’t happen that often,” Minichello says. “For the most part, for 30 some odd years, that sewer systems been working fine.”
But, like Deutsch, he says infrastructure improvements are desperately needed.
“Everybody’s screaming about climate change,” Minichello says. “What if we start getting more regular periods of heavy, heavy rain – what do we have to worry every time it rains? She’ll tell you,” he says, nodding toward his wife, Marilyn, “Every time it rains, I go downstairs and I triple check it – it could be 3 o’clock in the morning and I hear a heavy downpour and I go downstairs just to make sure water’s not coming in, because you have to catch it early.”
Even without an increase in rainfall, Queens residents say something needs to be done. Mrs. Medina describes the city response as “lackadaisical” and says that the city hasn’t taken responsibility for the problem, which only adds to her frustration.
“Ever since we bought [the house], it’s always been a problem, sometimes even if it doesn’t rain,” says Bibi Hussain, 49, who cares for his elderly mother, who bought the family home in 1989. She is one of a small percentage who have reported “dry weather backups,” which are not weather-related.
“We can’t leave anything on the floor. We store things high, because we never know when there’s going to be a flood,” says Hussain, who added that no one has been able to explain why her family has had to deal with the backups.
Like the Medinas, she says after each backup, her family spends money on plumbers who tell them the problem is with the city’s system.
And then there’s the cleanup.
“The guys will come,” says Hussain, who relies on family members to clean up the mess. “My husband brings his vacuum. My other brother tries to dry the place, get the smell out.”
Mrs. Medina says because of her ongoing health problems getting the house dried and keeping it free from mold after a backup is her number one priority.
“The whole house has asthma,” she says, including her two sons, aged 9 and 13.
“The doctors have told us that a lot of times it is related to smells,” says Mrs. Medina, referring to the distinct smell of raw sewage. “I know for me it’s a trigger, and for my other sister-in-law, it’s a trigger, because she’s worse off than I am.”
Neighborhood residents suspect the backups they suffer are tied to a larger infrastructure problem that needs attention. As for where to start, Mr. Medina and his Queens neighbors point toward nearby 115th Avenue.
“When it rains, the whole corner, the drain doesn’t work,” Medina says. “It becomes like a swamp.”
Jim Bezett, 81, who has lived across the street from the Medinas for more than 30 years, agrees.
“The water never completely dries up,” says Bezett, adding that he no longer bothers to complain to the city.
“It’s a useless cause,” he says, adding that 15 years ago – after dealing with the backups for more than two decades – he installed a butterfly valve to restrict wastewater from flowing back into his house. He said installing the valve solved the problem for him, but he’s given up hope on solving the larger problem.
A few streets over, Hussain has also given up. She says the repeated sewer backups cause too much stress.
“It gives me a headache. I say sell the damn house, but who’s gonna buy it?” she says.
* Editor’s note: DEP says 311 records show only a a single complaint from the Medinas since 1999, and that it was marked “resolved”, but Jennifer Medina contends she or her family has called at least once annually over the past three or four years. She did not retain the reference numbers of those calls.