New Westminster News Leader

Sewer line backup floods yard

Spencer Coen looks over the damage caused by a sewer line blockage overflowing next to his fence - Grant Granger/NewsLeader
Spencer Coen looks over the damage caused by a sewer line blockage overflowing next to his fence
— image credit: Grant Granger/NewsLeader

A West End resident is upset the city wouldn’t clean up effluent that  overflowed from a blocked sewer line into his backyard.

The line runs downhill on an overgrown city-owned right-of-way about 20 feet wide. It is parallel to the fence of the Mayes Street house where Spencer Coen lives.

On the weekend, Coen noticed some seepage under the fence into the backyard. At first, he assumed it was precipitation runoff, but then when it turned into a brown, murky substance it because obvious it was from a blocked sewer line.

A neighbour called the City of New Westminster and a crew came by Monday to unplug the blockage, but didn’t clean up the mess. After several calls to city hall, two engineering department employees came by Tuesday morning and ordered the mess the backup had caused on the right-of-way cleaned up. But Coen was told it was up to him to have the sewage in his backyard—which made up the bulk of the mess—cleaned up, and he’d have to get either his or his landlord’s insurance to pay for it.

Coen figures that’s going to mean a deductible of $300 to $500, and a subsequent rise in insurance premiums to address a mess created by the city.

“You would think it would be their responsibility,” said Coen.

City engineering manager Jim Lowrie said all municipalities in British Columbia have immunity from property damage resulting from the normal operation of sewer, drainage and water lines.

Though it happens infrequently, Lowrie said the city’s process is to advise the homeowner to “contact their own insurer or undertake contracting a restoration company.”

Lowrie said he asked Coen to get quotes for the cleanup and submit them to the city, which will then make a decision on paying the bill.

He said it appears the backup was caused by tree roots penetrating the system. He added, the insurance company can make a claim against the city but they “would have to demonstrate negligence. Tree roots are not considered negligence, that’s considered a nuisance.”

The effluent has travelled about 25 feet, down a set of stairs onto a cement sidewalk and small garden below the fence.

“I used to grow tomatoes and sunflowers there. I don’t think I’ll be doing that any more,” said Coen.

The biggest mess, however, is a 20-foot by 18-inch pool that has formed along the top of a wooden retaining wall extending into the backyard.

Coen said the first city employee he talked to told him to get out a shovel and clean it up himself. But he balked at that because it might contain blood or bodily hazards.

“I don’t have a bio-hazard suit, and I don’t know how to clean it up,” said Coen, who was worried the midweek rain would mean the waste would seep into the soil.

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