I-Team Report: Down the drain

July 23, 2009 8:14:37 AM PDT
Thousands of dollars and months of misery ended up down the drain for one Northwest Side family after their house became a cesspool of sewage.Their story exposes a potential problem for thousands of Chicago property owners.

The I-Team doesn't normally investigate sewer back-ups. But in this case, we found a family that had to move out of their home for more than five weeks, main city sewer pipes running underneath private property, and a city department chasing its tail.

"It was a geyser," said Maureen Chiavola, homeowner.

Eight-and-a-half months' pregnant, Maureen Chiavola and her two young daughters watched in horror as raw sewage from her neighborhood filled their basement.

"All the drains in the bathroom, the tub, the toilet filled to the rim," said Chiavola.

So, they called the city for some sewer help.

"The immediate 311 response that we have gotten was, hey it's on your property, it's not our problem. I was point blank told that the city was not going to come out to help," said Tony Chiavola, homeowner.

Now, sewage engulfed their back yard.

"We became the central pumping station for my neighbors," said Maureen Chiavola.

They had no choice but to call a private plumber who discovered the back-up was due to a blockage in the city sewer main. But more importantly, their house and most of the homes on their block weren't hooked up to the sewer main under the street in front, but to a sewer in the back, which is right underneath the Chiavolas' garage and every other garage on the block.

With the city refusing to help, the family moved out. It was only when their alderman intervened that the city water department sent out some private sewer contractors who seemed to go in circles.

"Continually, on a three-week basis for about three hours at a time, trying to locate a manhole and where our line was going to," said Tony Chiavola.

In a statement from the Chicago Water Department on Monday, city officials claim the Chiavolas' "sewer was not depicted in the city sewer atlas." But an official government plat that the Chiavolas' plumber obtained from City Hall in April clearly shows the connection in their back yard. Read the city's response to the I-Team's inquiries.

"Here's where it originally was, we found a pipe and there was a blockage so we rodded and got it open and we're all set now," said a city water department supervisor.

All set - according to a Chicago sewer supervisor, after a family had to move out of its home and weeks of inconvenience.

"Only once we started getting involved with Channel 7 it really started to open eyes in the city," said Tony Chiavola.

Eyes may be open about this, but not mouths.

City water commissioner John Spatz, who is in charge of the sewer system and who appears frequently on TV, refused to discuss the case.

After six weeks of asking questions, a city spokesman finally sent a statement expressing "regret (for) the time it took" to help the Chiavolas.

"If there were sewer crews out there, like there are water crews out there, and they had this information out there with them, it would have taken one week instead of five weeks... and corrected the situation instead of these people waiting so long," said a Chicago plumbing inspector.

Outspoken fourth-generation city plumbing inspector Michael McGann blames the bungling on the city's attempt to privatize many water and sewer department functions.

"It's more a matter of professionalism and having the crews where they need to be on a quicker basis," said McGann.

The I-Team found other sewer mains running under private property.

Residents at the Evergreen-Sedgwick apartments say they had constant sewage back-ups on the first floor. And the owner of a Near North Side building found a sewer main under his property as he was building a multi-unit dwelling.

Twenty percent of all Chicago sewers run under private property, according to plumbing industry experts, although city sewer officials contend it is a much smaller number.

For the Chiavolas - already out $15,000 and bills still coming in - only one number really matters: their property value, which Tony Chiavola says is also down the drain.

"You pay the taxes, the taxes keep going up. Now (Chicago Mayor Richard) Daley wants to bring the Olympics here, and we're going to obviously be paying for that, too. So if they want to know what it's like to deal with the raw sewage that I deal with on a daily basis, I'd be happy to deliver 'em samples of that," said Tony Chiavola.

The Chiavolas want to know why they and their neighbors haven't been hooked up to the sewer main in front of their houses, where they should be. ABC7 asked the water department and got no response.

Maybe it has something to do with the very first city inspector who showed up at their house. ABC7 checked out his certification and learned that he doesn't have any. But even more surprising, city officials say house drain inspectors don't have to be licensed plumbers or even licensed inspectors, despite being paid $92,000 a year.


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