Fallout from Three Rivers main break far from sorted out

Pictured from left are Wastewater Treatment Plant Superintendent Taylor Davis, City Manager Joe Bippus, and City Attorney TJ Reed. Bippus told citizens negatively affected by the Constantine Street Lift Station sewage spill, “We understand that you are negatively affected. We’re not happy about it. We will work through this process with everyone."

Discussions continued Tuesday about the Constantine Street sewer force main break which dumped 500,000 gallons of untreated wastewater near the St. Joseph River on July 7. Three Rivers City Commissioners heard comments from a citizen directly affected by the break, City Manager Joe Bippus, and Wastewater Treatment Plant Superintendent Taylor Davis during its regularly scheduled meeting. 

Carrie Snyder lives on Constantine Street and read aloud an impassioned statement directed to the commissioners during the public comment portion of the meeting. “Our city residents are forced to pay outrageous monthly water and sewer bills for a less-than-adequate sewage system that backed up in my basement on July 13,” Snyder said. “Over 4,000 gallons of sewage flooding into my home resulting in the loss of thousands of dollars of personal items and appliances.” She said on the first day after the flooding Director of Public Services Amy Roth was advising Snyder to “bill it (damages) to the city.” On day two Snyder said everything changed.

“The cleanup service halted and we were left in limbo for two weeks. Two weeks of begging for help and answers. Two weeks of getting the runaround. Two weeks of living in unhealthy conditions with raw sewage still standing in our home.”

Snyder told commissioners she has now gone over two weeks without hot, running water or central air. “We did not ask for this mess, we do not deserve this mess, and we shouldn’t be the ones responsible to pay for the cleanup of this mess,” she said. “I and many others would like to know what caused this backup, where was the problem located, how could it have been avoided, and what is being done to assure that this won’t happen again? Why has the city turned its back on the people so far? What is the city going to do to make this right?”

Davis took the floor to give a detailed explanation on what has most recently occurred with the force main break. “All of this sewage came from the force main coming from that pump station that goes directly to the headworks, and it carries all of the City of Three Rivers’ waste water,” he said. “That is the main pipe that broke. Then there also was a break next to that one because the gravity ran next to it. That also broke, which has the majority of the west-northwest side of the city. Both of those were broken, and they were both 20 feet underground.”

Davis said a second no-contact advisory was put into place from July 27 to July 28. “We had that rainstorm on Wednesday and I had two bypass pumps set up – one at a manhole by the river, one in the wet well at the lift station,” he said. “They were not able to keep up with some of our sewers combined, that heavy rain hit quick, and it overflowed what the bypass pumps could do.” Davis said he had the two largest bypass pumps he could find and had both of them set up to pump all night. “It’s just when that extra rainwater hit the lift station, it rose to a level where it came out of the manhole next to the river. There was nothing we could do. We couldn’t add another pump. We were in a bad situation and the rain made it a little bit worse that night.”

At the time of publication, Davis reports everything is back to normal operationally. “We ran a new ‘temporary-permanent’ bypass and avoided the whole force main that was in rough shape,” he said. “We came out 10 feet higher than the building, ran it a little more shallow until we met up with a good section of the force main, and reconnected there. Until the new station is done that new piping will last.”

Bippus addressed the question of what party is at fault for the break and said, “This area is part of a multi-million-dollar project to upgrade our system. Our hope was to go in there, fix everything, make it brand new, and make it perfect. There was an accident during it, something happened and that pipe broke. Who takes responsibility for that still needs to be figured out.” He said the city is spending over $275,000 to solve the issue and, in the process, some residents were affected negatively. “There’s a law and a process they have to go through for that and it can be slow and arduous,” Bippus said. “I know it’s frustrating and everybody would love to hear that the city will take care of it no matter what, but that’s not how it works. 

Mayor Tom Lowry said the city is still going through the process of determining fault with an outside company, and that it will be done in the next couple of weeks. Once fault has been decided, he said the city’s insurance company will decide the next steps, and Bippus will be in negotiations with the involved party. “There’s a time for negotiation and I bring that up because for each of the property owners who were affected, there’s a process,” Lowry said. “They have to file with their own home insurance and once that gets exhausted or denied then, by law, they can come to the city’s insurance company and let them work on it. It either gets resolved or it doesn’t. If you’re still not happy at the end of that part, then you can negotiate or litigate.”

Bippus added, “We understand that you are negatively affected. We’re not happy about it. We will work through this process with everyone.” Lowry said he doesn’t have power in this scenario, but he’s been assisting some citizens and offered himself as a resource for anyone needing help. “If anybody wants to use me as a conduit they can, or get in touch with the city manager because, ultimately, I go to him. He has the authority to do things that I don’t have the authority to do. But I can be your friend or your ally.”

Beca Welty is a staff writer and columnist for Watershed Voice.