During the brutally cold Chicago winter, Rose Williamson came home from work one evening to discover a busted pipe and water “gushing” inside her two-story partially occupied building on the West Side.
She repeatedly called the city to turn the water off, which it did — 26 days later.
In the meantime, water had been flooding inside her basement, freezing over the walls, floors, appliances and electrical box. As a result, Williamson had to cut off the power and temporarily move out.
“Nobody seemed to think this was an emergency,” Williamson, 58, said. “You are talking about somebody’s home, and you’re just gonna let it keep leaking? . . . That’s just crazy.”
A spokesman for Chicago’s Department of Water Management, the local government agency that oversees the city’s water and sewer systems, said his agency received Williamson’s request, but crews were initially unable to shut the water off because of a defective Buffalo Box, which is the main water valve in the street.
“This was at a time when we had thousands of families without water due to frozen pipes, and occupied homes had to be our top priority,” said spokesman Tom LaPorte.
Of course, Williamson’s house was occupied, until the unsolved flooding problem forced her to move out.
Weeks later, after Williamson thought the ordeal was finally over, she received a $3,000 bill for the water she was trying for weeks to get turned off.
“I think it’s unfair,” said Williamson, who paid the bill recently because she was selling the property and the sale may not have gone through otherwise. “How many other citizens like me had water issues like this, and their stuff didn’t get fixed . . . and they are being charged these enormous bills for what happened?”
Good question. We asked the city about other instances of this happening, and other complaints, but have yet to hear back.
LaPorte said, however, the city is now reviewing Williamson’s situation and might reimburse a portion of her payment.
Waves Of Bureaucracy
Denise Polak knows she has less than 20 minutes from the start of a downpour to get home and start the pumps in her window wells before the flooding ensues.
For years she’s dealt with severe flooding on her property in an unincorporated area near Orland Park. Her private well has been contaminated — apparently by the flood water — despite repeated cleanings, and both she and her husband have been stricken with bizarre symptoms that doctors can’t seem to figure out but she suspects are caused by bacteria in the well water.
For help, she’s reached out to more than a dozen government entities, including: The Village of Orland Park, Orland Township, Cook County, Illinois Department of Transportation and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District. She’s even written to the White House.
But nobody seems to have jurisdiction on the matter.
“We’ve gone ‘round and ‘round and ‘round,” Polak said. “I’ve written to everybody, and I get stonewalled.”
Each of these agencies said they’ve tried to help as much as they can, but are under no obligation to do so.
“Many of these systems were developed before there was any public authority so there is no clear responsible entity,” Allison Fore, a MWRD spokesman, explained.
It’s also unclear what’s been causing the flooding. Some say it’s an overburdened storm sewer, others say it’s the growth of wetland. The Polak’s home sits along the lowest the point in the area; it’s also adjacent to a drain that backs up in heavy storms, which Polak says has been happening more frequently in recent years.
Polak believes no one has seriously tried to address her concerns because it’s only affecting her and her neighbor’s properties.
“With only two homes impacted, who cares? That is the problem,” she said.
Something Rotten In Oak Park
A dispute over sewer lines in Oak Park has turned messy, with neighbors and governmental agencies now pointing fingers at each other.
Sherri Lasko lives in an 1893 Victorian house in Oak Park. The property at one point included a coach house, but the land has since been divided, and the coach house is now a retail store on the first floor and an apartment on the second.
Over the last few years, Lasko said sewage from the coach building has been backing up into her catch basin, which is meant to handle grease and water from her kitchen sink, shower and the like. Plumbers told her the connection was not right and that she should contact the village about potential code violations. (The owner of the adjacent property, Jack Strand, does not believe any sewage backup was his fault and says his property is up to code.)
Ultimately the village did have Strand install a separate water line but said state plumbing code does not require a separate sewer line for existing buildings.
Lasko has repeatedly questioned this interpretation — saying sewage has backed up into her home, causing a health and safety hazard — but said the village is ignoring her concerns.
Stephen Witt, permit manager for Oak Park, said the village asked the state to look into the matter because the village adopted the state code. State plumbing inspector Andrew Thiesse determined there were no violations.
“If the State of Illinois wrote the code, I have nothing that I can go back at and do any kind of retroactive action,” Witt said. “It’s not like we were turning a deaf ear to situations on this property. Where we were able to enforce things on this code, we have done so.”
Thiesse, however, said it’s a local matter that should have been addressed by the village when the properties were initially separated decades ago. He also questioned why the village pushed for a separate water line, arguing it may have been unnecessary.
Lasko, meanwhile, hired a plumber and obtained a permit from the village to cap off the unused pipe on her property in an attempt to block sewage from entering her catch basin.
Another government agency is now involved — the courts.
Strand sued Lasko after that work was completed because the cement that filled the pipe blocked his access to the main sewer line — meaning he then was at risk of a sewer back-up in his building.
The case is still pending.
This column was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Katie Drews. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (312) 821-9027.