Sewer backwash poses hefty bill

The City is facing the prospect of millions of dollars in payouts to dozens of residents and businesses after a judge ruled that it’s liable for property damage caused by diluted sewage that brimmed out of its sewer system in 2004.

More than 1,000 miles of brick sewers, many built well over a century ago, carry flushed waste below city streets to treatment plants.

The sewers also fill with storm-water during rainstorms, which can overwhelm the system and cause it to overflow.

Superior Court Judge Mary Wiss ruled last week that The City is liable for overflow damage to dozens of properties that followed a massive storm in February 2004.

The diluted effluent spurted up through sinks and toilets and was also carried into buildings by the February 2004 floods, said attorney Mark W. Epstein, who is representing more than 40 plaintiffs from 30 properties.

The Board of Supervisors is due to vote Tuesday on a proposed $75,000 settlement agreement with one of the plaintiffs. Epstein said he expects total damages to exceed $3 million, with restaurants and a rug trader among the worst affected.

The City argued in court documents that the properties are in flood zones and the combined sewer and storm-water system was not the cause of the property damage. Rather, the system “incompletely mitigated” the effects of the heavy rainfall, attorneys representing The City argued.

But the court found that The City is liable because the combined system is a “public work” that wasn’t able to handle the floods. The City will not be liable for damages found to be caused by rainfall alone.

More than one-quarter of the affected properties were in low-lying Cayuga Avenue in the Mission Terrace neighborhood. San Francisco Public Utilities Commission General Manager Ed Harrington said the SFPUC has “spent a lot of money in the last year or two” tackling overflow problems there.

The problems have been tackled as part of a 30-year sewer improvement project launched in 2005 by then-SFPUC General Manager Susan Leal.

Leal was replaced as head of the SFPUC in January, prompting Supervisor Bevan Dufty to express concerns that the sewer improvement project could be delayed.

Dufty on Sunday said he expects the Board of Supervisors to schedule hearings and increase its oversight of the multibillion-dollar project.

An SFPUC vote on the next stages of the project was originally scheduled for January, but it is now expected in May, SFPUC spokesman Tyrone Jue said.

jupton@examiner.com  

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