Resident wages pungent battle

When 75-year-old Naomi Silverstein climbed out of bed late one night last October, she was shocked that she stepped into raw sewage.

A city sewer had backed up, and flooded her home with sludge, she said. The damage was so great that all the floors had to be replaced and walls repainted.

Her home was repaired in December, but it happened again one month later. She was standing in the shower when she heard the sewage burbling through her pipes. She ran through the house, ready to gather towels to protect her new floors. Then she looked out her window: Excrement was floating in her flooded yard.

Silverstein filed a claim this spring with the city of San Mateo to reimburse her cleanup expenses. She said she the flooding was caused by the city’s broken sewage main lines near her home on Gillis Drive. City officials rejected the claim, saying the problem was on her end. But she argues none of it would ever have happened had the city’s sewer line not flooded during the rains, and she has now filed a lawsuit against the city. In the meantime, she has taken a part-time job as an office assistant to make ends meet.

Silverstein’s case is not unique. Some parts of the city’s 240 miles of sewage lines are more than 100 years old, and it’s not uncommon for them to leak or back up, according to city officials.

The city typically receives 20 to 25 claims per year asking for reimbursement for a sewage backup, City Attorney Sean Mason said. He said the city accepts responsibility in about 30 percent to 40 percent of those claims, and in recent years has paid out between $20,000 and $170,000 per year.

The city’s sewers need about $37 million in repairs, said Darla Reams, the deputy director of public works. The city plans to spend about $12 million as part of a five-year improvement program, she said.

Reams wouldn’t comment on the details of the Silverstein case because of the lawsuit.

Reams said sewage mains can break down in a number of ways: structural failure, tree root invasion or from inappropriate items in the sewer lines.

Silverstein said the city still has not fixed the initial problem that caused her flooding.

“I love my home and I would never leave it, to tell you the truth, I really felt like somebody from [Hurricane] Katrina,” she said. “I’m sitting on a time bomb.”

kworth@sfexaminer.com

By the numbers

A look at sewage statistics.

» 20 to 25 per year: Claims received by the city about sewage backups into homes

» 30 to 40: Percent of those claims where the city accepts responsibility

» 236: Miles of sewers in San Mateo

» $2 million to $2.5 million: Amount devoted to maintaining the lines annually

» 37 million: Total cost of recommended sewer fixes

» $12 million: Amount the city is planning to spend on priority fixes

Source: City of San Mateo

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