Dec. 11 , 2006

Dassel might be partly responsible for sewer backup

By Roz Kohls
Staff Writer

Dassel city council members don’t completely agree with the claims adjuster that the City of Dassel is not negligent for a sanitary sewer back up Sept. 26.

They also said at the city council meeting last Monday the plumber who installed an inferior check valve in the home of Chuck and Cindy Nelson of Dassel is partly responsible, too.

“Chuck didn’t do anything he wasn’t instructed to do. He asked for help earlier,” pointed out Council Member Bob Wilde.

Also, Public Works Director Dave Scepaniak allegedly denied there was a problem with the city’s sanitary sewer line at their home at 100 7th St. S. Scepaniak didn’t respond for two hours. In the meantime, sewage continued to back up into the basement of the Nelson home, causing thousands of dollars in damages.

The claims adjuster from Hutchinson, representing the League of Minnesota Cities’ insurance trust, allegedly didn’t respond promptly, either.

As a result, council members directed City Administrator Myles McGrath to send a letter to the plumber who installed the check valve in the Nelson home in 2003 asking for an explanation, and possibly to pay a share of the nearly $4,000 cost.

Nelson presented a timeline of events in the incident to the council. Here is what happened:

On Sept. 25, one of the Nelson children notified him the toilet in the basement was overflowing. Using a plunger, Nelson was able to get the sewage to recede, although slowly.

The next day, the toilet overflowed again, only this time, Nelson couldn’t make it stop. He had been instructed when the check valve was installed to examine it for a clog. However, if there is a back up, merely loosening the cap on the valve, which is what Nelson did, compromises the valve. The compromised valve made the backup of sewage worse.

At this point, Council Member Bob Lalone said if the plumber had installed a modern, up-to-date check valve with a see-through cap, Nelson wouldn’t have had to open the cap to look for a clog.

This sewer back up was the fourth time in three years since the Nelsons hooked up to the city system, so immediately, Nelson tried to reach a city employee. It was 6 p.m., and no one was available. He left a message on Scepaniak’s answering machine, and called a plumber as a last resort, Nelson said.

Scepaniak returned his call at about 7:30 p.m. Only the lift stations in the city sanitary sewer system contain sensors to monitor for back ups, and none of them signaled a blockage. Scepaniak told Nelson the city’s sanitary sewer lines were not the problem.

Mayor Ava Flachmeyer defended Scepaniak’s lack of response because he assumed a plumber was on the way, and the problem would be solved shortly, she said.

However, after the plumber tried clearing the line in the house with a Roto Rooter, sewage continued to spill over the floor, and back up into the bedroom and closet for the next two hours.

Nelson called Scepaniak back at about 9:30 p.m., and told him the Roto Rooter process wasn’t working. Then, Scepaniak told Nelson to go out to the street, pull up the manhole covers, and check for back up in the manholes.

Lalone questioned Scepaniak why it was the resident’s responsibility to check the manholes, and not a city employee’s job. Scepaniak responded that he had worked with Nelson before, and knew he was capable.

Nelson checked the manholes in the street in front of his house, and confirmed they were full of water. Then, public works employees got involved. The line was “jetted,” cleaned out with water under extreme pressure.

No one will ever know what caused the clog because the jetting pulverizes it. It could have been a child’s toy, a tree root, a pillowcase, kitchen grease, or soap, Scepaniak said.

“When you have a blockage like that, it could be anything,” he added.

It’s also impossible to know whether the blockage accumulated over time, or was a sudden occurrence.

Also, the Nelsons’ sewer lines are almost flat because the new basement they installed is lower than the original basement of the house. Some of the homes in Dassel have basements that are lower than the sanitary sewer lines, and require lift stations to get the sewage out of them, Scepaniak said.

Cindy Nelson said the elevations were checked after the first back up, and were not a problem.

Flachmeyer suggested the city pay half, $1,920, of the bill for damages.

McGrath agreed that Scepaniak should have told Nelson to check the manholes at 7:30 p.m., instead of allowing the back up to continue for two more hours.

Wilde also said Scepaniak should have taken the resident’s word for what was happening, and at least checked out the situation, instead of denying there was a problem.

Instead of splitting the bill in half, though, the council decided to contact the plumber who installed the inferior check valve about compensation.

Later, Ralph Danielson, who lives near the Nelsons on Seventh Street and is also worried about a sanitary sewer back up on his property, advised the council and Scepaniak to check the line more frequently.

“It’s a line that plugs,” he said.

At first, the city can check it once a week. Then, if everything is OK, check it every other week. Then, if the line is still clear, check it once a month, and so on, Danielson said.

Scepaniak said the city jets sanitary sewer lines once every three years. He suggested the city could increase jetting of that quadrant of Dassel to every other year.

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