LYNNWOOD — The first whiff of a sewage problem at Ruth Crompton’s house arrived by mail.
It came in the form of an Aug. 6 demand from the Snohomish Health District to fix a bad sewer connection or move out.
Now, Crompton and her neighbors are stuck with a $15,500 repair bill for a nine-year-old problem that wasn’t their fault.
Snohomish County officials concede as much, but say the responsibility to clean up the mess on private property rests with the small homeowners association.
A county building inspector approved Crompton’s plumbing when the home was built. The developer has long since gone out of business.
“I’m assuming when I buy this house, the sewage is hooked up,” Crompton said. “How many people failed here?”
An Iraq War veteran who works as an auditor at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Crompton has compiled a dossier of notes, timelines and permitting information, seeking answers for what went wrong. She’s invested hundreds of dollars in repairs, several days off work and an incalculable amount of stress.
She’s vowing not to pay another cent.
Problems in this unincorporated area near Lynnwood and Mukilteo started with a bone-headed plumbing mistake when Crompton’s house was built in 2005. Until this summer, untreated waste from the house had been flowing into a stormwater vault along Beverly Park Road, near a common driveway that’s owned by six houses.
Earlier this year, county surface water inspectors found sewage sediment in the stormwater vault. Nearby catch basins eventually drain to Norma Creek.
Staff from the local health and sewer districts used dye to pinpoint the contamination to Crompton’s house. That led to the notice to correct the sewer hookup.
A contractor, Fischer Plumbing of Seattle, initially quoted her up to $3,800 for repairs. That was after charging $341.64 to inspect the sewer lines with a camera.
Aghast, Crompton sought another opinion.
Fortunately for her, the bill from Justin Spear, an employee with a local landscaping company, totaled $278.02.
Spear dug a hole a few feet from the foundation Sept. 3 and noticed an obvious problem. Black plumbing pipes were routed into white stormwater pipes, instead of connecting to the home’s side sewer. Correcting the error required a drive to Home Depot, less than $50 in parts and about an hour’s worth of labor.
“The real crummy part is that it was a real simple fix,” Spear said.
The ordeal was far from over.
Years of accumulated waste remained in the private drainage system, and was seeping into public storm drains.
On Sept. 19, the county’s Surface Water Management Division hit Crompton and the other five homeowners with $5,000 in fines for violating water-pollution laws.
County ombudsman John Koster tried to broker a compromise after hearing from Crompton and another neighbor. If the homeowners split the estimated $15,500 cleanup cost, the fines would go away. Each homeowner would foot about $2,600 of the bill.
“Work had to be done one way or another,” Koster said. “I wasn’t looking at fault. I was looking at the best solution for all parties.”
The county needed to address the problem quickly, Koster said, to prevent the pollution from spreading during the rainy season. Also weighing on his mind was the prospect of hefty fines for violating federal stormwater laws. The county — and by extension its taxpayers — would end up paying for that.
Crompton didn’t sign up for the deal, but most neighbors did. One of them, Vera Tsukrenko, wanted the fines to go away, but she’s not sure she can pay her share of the bill either. She’s staying at home with a 1-year-old child, leaving her husband the only breadwinner.
“I don’t have extra money to pay that much and I don’t know what to do,” Tsukrenko said.
Though the waste was coming from one house, the county insists all six homeowners in the development are legally responsible.
Official documents for the Starlite Park Condominiums, the development’s official name, assigned the homeowners association responsibility for maintaining the common drainage system. In the Starlight development, like many other neighborhoods, people were unaware they even had a homeowners association. While it existed as a legal technicality, it was inactive and unfunded.
“We don’t have an HOA — we never had that,” Tsukrenko said. “We never had a fee or anything.”
Earlier this month, a contractor removed more than 7,000 gallons of waste from the drainage system, said Karen Kerwin, the county’s surface water engineering manager. The county has yet to receive a final bill.
Crompton bought her house in the working-class area back in 2005, during the building boom. She moved away in 2008 after the base closure at Fort Lawton in Seattle forced her to find a job on the East Coast. She soon mobilized to Iraq, spent two years there, and returned to Washington state in 2010. She now lives in Puyallup and rents her Lynnwood-area home.
The original builder, Tartan Development, is out of business. The company’s owner, Pat McDonald of Snohomish, declared bankruptcy in 2008.
Records show that county inspectors signed off on the home’s plumbing system during construction. They don’t identify the contractor.
The county’s inspection and enforcement manager said the goof-up with the misdirected pipes was so blatant, that no inspector should have missed it.
“I’m not saying it couldn’t happen, it’s just difficult to see how it was missed,” Mike McCrary said.
Another possibility is that the original work was good, but someone attempted a clumsy repair after the county inspection, McCrary said.
“As long as I’ve been here, I’ve never dealt with a cross connection like this before,” he said.
As far as Crompton is concerned, it’s the county’s mistake — and not her responsibility.
“I’m not paying for it and those other people aren’t paying it,” she said.
“I’m advocating that nobody pays for this except for Snohomish County.”