Everett denying some claims from overflowing sewage

EVERETT — When sewage backed up through a toilet and oozed over the floor at Jamie Nardinger’s Wetmore Avenue hair salon one afternoon in late August, she and her landlord figured they’d be reimbursed.

The salon was among the first properties hit after heavy rains overwhelmed Everett’s combined sewer and storm water system that day. About a week later, the city endured another soaking, which inundated more homes and businesses with foul waters.

In the following days, city leaders assured property owners they would cover all reasonable damage claims. Nardinger and landlord Steve Wicklund were dumbstruck last month when the city refused to cover cleanup and repair costs.

“We can’t keep their main clean,” Wicklund said. “When their main backs up, then we suffer the consequences.”

Wicklund is not alone. The city has been turning down about 1 in 10 damage claims from the August and September sewer overflows.

The city had fielded a total of 176 claims, as of last week. It’s accepted 150 and settled 30 of them already, Everett spokeswoman Meghan Pembroke said.

The city has turned down 15 claims, with another 11 still under review.

At Salon 4 Hair Design, directly across the street from City Hall, Nardinger and Wicklund aren’t happy about the rejection.

In an Oct. 28 letter, a city attorney informed them of Everett’s logic: Public works investigators discovered a 22-inch-long two-by-four and a cat-size ball of hair below the manhole in front of the salon.

The city said the “human hairball almost certainly came from” the hair salon, a contention Nardinger and Wicklund don’t believe the city can prove. The city offered no theory for how the lumber wound up there, but said it was unlawfully placed there.

For those reasons, the city must deny the claim, the attorney wrote.

City investigators ruled out tree roots or recent construction projects as contributing to the Aug. 29 blockage.

Another factor was that the backup at Wicklund’s property occurred several hours earlier than most of the other problems from the day’s storm that have led to damage claims.

Wicklund acknowledges the timing, but says it doesn’t change the fact that his situation is related to the storm and the resulting city sewer problems.

The cost of fixing the sewer backup at the salon was about $14,000 — some $10,000 for biohazard cleanup and most of the rest for new floors.

Wicklund said he’ll continue to press the issue with the city. He believes paying utility bills should guarantee that businesses like his are connected to a working sewer.

“I can’t service the mains,” he said. “I can service my own lines if I have problems. The city is driving me out of business.”

During a City Council meeting on Sept. 11, Stephanson promised, “to resolve all reasonable claims filed as a result of those two storm events.” The mayor, however, made it clear that not all claims would be covered.

“Everyone needs to know and understand that this is a two-step process that involves acceptance of the claim and then a determination of the appropriate amount of damages related to cleanup, restoration and the associated property damage,” he said.

The city faced similar sewer problems after a June 2010 storm, which resulted in more than 70 damage claims. The city wound up paying out nearly $1 million in settlements.

This year’s overflows likely could cost even more because of the number of claims, many of which are coming from businesses. Snohomish County Public Utility District, the local American Red Cross chapter and Everett Community College all reported damage this time around.

The 2010 backups mostly damaged houses in more concentrated section of North Everett.

The recent storms also walloped Everett’s north end, with upper stretches of Colby, Grand and Wetmore avenues making up the largest cluster of claims. Another 15 claims came from apartments on 47th Street SE, near Evergreen Way. Rucker Hill, downtown and areas east of Broadway also are heavily represented.

The overflow problems owe to a combined sewer and stormwater system built up between the city’s beginnings, in the late 19th century, through the early 1960s. With normal rainfall, the combined flow goes to the city treatment plant and then into Possession Sound. When especially wet weather floods the system, untreated water spills directly into Possession Sound. Sometimes it flows back through the plumbing and comes up through basement toilets and drains.

The city is looking into long-term fixes. Any solution is likely to take a lot of time and money. Public works officials estimate that the cost of separating stormwater and sewer systems citywide could run well into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

That means business owners such as Nardinger are apt to keep a suspicious eye on stormy skies above — and worry about yucky consequences below.

“It came out of the rear restroom and all over the floor up to the front door,” Nardinger said of the Aug. 29 overflow. “We were right in the middle of doing people’s hair.”

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, nhaglund@heraldnet.com.

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