CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Charlotte's water department has paid a lot of money for accidents with sewer lines, Channel 9 has learned. They're called sewer blowbacks, and they're exactly what they sound like.
It was two weeks before Christmas last year when Sonjah Chisholm's grandkids were over when it happened.
"I saw water streaming down from the bathtub and the toilet. There was an inch of water on the floor,” Chisholm said.
Filth was coming from the toilet and tub. She said it was feces and other things.
"It was brown. All kinds of stuff. It was everything-- and smelly, smelly, it was terrible,” she said.
After using towels to clean up what they could, Chisholm called Charlotte 311 and later learned it's what's called a sewer blowback.
Workers had been using a high-powered water jet to clean nearby pipes and it caused the sewage to shoot up into her home.
Wickersham dug through city records dating back to 2013 and found 431 cases of sewage backing up into homes or businesses where Charlotte Water paid for damages totaling $1,031,827.
Wickersham asked Charlotte Water director Barry Gullet how the utility can accept those kinds of costs.
"I don't believe it's out of line in terms of the work we do and the risks that are involved, working with sewer pipes, some of which are 100 years old,” Gullet said.
Gullet said sewer backups are not common considering the city has 280,000 water accounts.
The worst case we uncovered at the North Harbor Club on Lake Norman in January 2015. Charlotte Water paid $152,000 for damages and lost business.
Only backups labeled as blowbacks happening while workers are cleaning the pipes are considered Charlotte Water's fault. Those totaled $291,608.
The rest were paid under what he calls a "good will" policy Charlotte has to homeowners who receive damage, even though the utility may not be at fault, Gullet said.
"We are always working to keep the lines clear. We have 20 crews out cleaning sewer pipes on a regular basis. We have contractors in addition to those 20 crews,” Gullet said.
Charlotte Water has crews that monitor for blockages. Workers send cameras inside a sewer. It’s not a pretty sight: cockroaches and spider webs. They're looking for blockages, tree roots or cracks in the pipes.
Gullet said homeowners can do their part by not sending the two biggest sewer blocking culprits down the drain: grease and disposable wipes.
Chisholm said in her case Charlotte Water did respond quickly and paid almost $5,000 for a cleanup crew, new carpet and towels.
"They got service master in here the next day,” she said.
She has this message for anyone who endures the same disgusting situation.
"Call 311 immediately and let them handle it. Don’t touch anything,” she said.
If you have any kind of sewer back up into your home, Gullet suggests calling a plumber right away to minimize the damage. Then call 311. They will send a crew to investigate and see if the city might reimburse you for some or all of the damage to your home.
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