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When home sewer failure results in street repairs
Old Orangeburg pipe culprit in homeowners expense
Sue Smith - Sewer Problem
Sue Smith, who has done some research on the problem with a decaying sewer service line that has cost her more than $3,000, exhibits a letter she sent Mayor Jan Moore asking her and City Council to look into the situation. - photo by AL HACKLE/Staff

When she pays her latest plumbing bill, Azalea Drive resident Sue Smith will have spent more than $4,000 in the past two years to fix problems caused by a six-foot length of collapsed sewer line that was buried under a city street. Part of her current bill’s $3,000 cost was for cutting and patching the street.

As she has learned, the city of Statesboro considers lateral sewer lines that extend from homes to be the homeowner’s property all the way to the city’s main, even when the connection is under the middle of the street. Smith, a retired Georgia Southern University interior design professor, thinks something isn’t right about this, and would like for the city to do something to help people in her situation.

“If I go bankrupt, we can call this bankruptcy by plumbing,” Smith said with a laugh, while conveying that she is seriously unhappy with the situation. “I’m 80, and how many 80-year-old people do you know – we’re usually retired, fixed income – how many of them could pull $3,000 out of their pocket and pay for this?”

She acknowledged that some retirees have it harder than she does, but said it is difficult for her. Her husband was longtime Georgia Southern athletic trainer Tom D. “Doc” Smith, and they shared a comfortable home into retirement. But before her husband’s death in October 2013, they had spent about $30,000 to add a bathroom he could access in a wheelchair. He died before the bathroom was fully functional.


Orangeburg pipe

Sue Smith’s subsequent plumbing problems have earlier origins, in the type of sewer pipe used by the homebuilder when the Smiths had their house built in 1972. Called Orangeburg pipe, it was made of wood fiber and pitch.

Despite comparisons to rolled-up tarpaper and pitch-soaked toilet paper tubes, some Orangeburg pipe has lasted for decades. But as Sue Smith said in a Feb. 17 letter to Mayor Jan Moore, the Orangeburg under the Smiths’ yard failed before 1980, within eight years of its installation. They had it dug up then and replaced with plastic pipe, she said, except for the final six feet that ran under the street.

But in 2014, the drain started backing up again. According to a bill she kept, Smith spent $303.68 on plumbing that year.

Then, in the latter half of 2015, the bathroom flooded about an inch deep on the tile floor, she said. She had paid another $711 to her regular plumber by the time he deployed a sewer camera and diagnosed the problem as the collapsed six feet of old Orangeburg pipe.

When her bathroom flooded a second time before Christmas, Smith sought the street-disrupting, permanent repair her regular plumber wasn’t prepared to make. She called in Allen’s Electrical and Plumbing, which sent, by Smith’s description, a crew of about seven men and a big machine to cut through the pavement and dig a trench seven feet deep. The disintegrated pipe was replaced with a new section of PVC pipe and covered with new asphalt.

Allen’s Dec. 22 invoice to Smith was for exactly $3,000.

“He’s a nice guy. I’m not mad at any of the plumbers,” Smith said.

Instead, her complaint is that she will now have paid for the Orangeburg pipe three times: when it was first installed, when most of it was replaced, and to replace the last six feet plus repair the city street. She also described spending two and a half hours clearing water from the floor and having an insurer inspect to make sure there was no other damage.

“So it’s been a royal pain, and I don’t have anybody I can blame except just blame the situation, but it makes me awfully mad for it just to be, ‘Well, tough luck, Sue,’” she said.

After Allen’s crew attached the new pipe to the main, Smith called the city to make sure that the connection was inspected. Two city employees who came out told her that whenever you see a streak of patched pavement running from a yard to the middle of the street “that’s Orangeburg,” she said.


About one a month

In an interview, interim Statesboro City Manager Robert Cheshire said he wouldn’t say that there’s a rash of failed Orangeburg pipe occurring.

“But when I was in engineering and we handled the street-cut inspections and the  inspection of the tap going back into the main, I know we saw it maybe once or twice a month,” Cheshire said.

The number of trees around sewer lines is a factor in sewer line failure, and Orangeburg pipe is very susceptible to being clogged or collapsed by roots, Cheshire said.

“It’s not always just Orangeburg pipe,” he said. “It could be any one of a number of kinds of pipe, but that’s the one that the material is starting to fail and we’re seeing several of those around town each year.”

Considering what Orangeburg was made of, he said, the surprising thing is that some of it has lasted for 40 or 50 years.

“Who knows whether a hundred years from now they’ll look at the stuff we put in and go, ‘Wow, what were they thinking?’” Cheshire said.

Asked for a count of street cut permits issued, City Engineer Brad Deal replied that the department has only recently started keeping a record of this. But his informal estimate is about 10 permits a year.

“We usually do not get more than one per month,” Deal said.

Smith had the impression that the city allows only certain plumbers to cut and repair a street. The city requires only that they be licensed plumbers and get a street cut permit, Cheshire said. To get a permit, plumbers or other contractors must be prepared to handle traffic control and the street repair and sign a letter of indemnification.


City policy

Besides writing to the mayor, Smith recently met with Cheshire and Water and Wastewater Director Van Collins. They told her that the city has followed the same policy for 30 years.

“It’s just the city’s policy has been that it’s up to the homeowner to make the repair all the way to the main,” Cheshire told the Statesboro Herald. “I am going to look into it, though.”

City Council has been asked for relief before, most recently, about a year and a half ago, he said.

“It has come to council at least on two three occasions, and council has stuck with the policy,” Cheshire said. “We’ve checked with other places, and the ones we’ve checked with have the same policy.”

Smith has suggested that the city look into whether any grants are available to help homeowners or whether the pipe manufacturer is still in existence and might be liable.

Cheshire said he plans to research further and ask the mayor and council, which he noted has two new members, if they want to modify the policy in any way.

“I asked Mrs. Smith to give me a little bit of time to look into it a little more, see what other people are doing, see if there are other remedies or other ideas that people are doing to fix it that maybe we haven’t thought of,” Cheshire said.

Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.





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