John and Joan Middleton have had sewage in their basement five times since they moved into their house on Floradale Road in Salina in 1966. And they’re not the only ones; a number of their neighbors have also struggled with the problem.
“Every time it flooded with sewage, we were told something was being done to fix the problem,” Joan Middleton said. “We’ll see some activity. We just assumed something was actually being done.”
But, Middleton said, it seemed little progress was actually being made. That lack of progress was particularly evident after the record-setting rainfall that came last July 12.
“That was the most devastating,” Middleton said. “Some of our neighbors were forced out of their residences. We all had sewage in our homes. All but two of the pump stations in the entire county failed. There were no auxiliary pumps. Those homes are not safe to live in.”
The 25 homes affected are all connected to the Bloody Brook sewer trunk and stand on Floradale, Sunflower Drive, Midwood Drive and Brookview Lane.
Middleton said that she and her husband were away at the time of the July 12 flood and returned home to find drying fecal matter coating much of their home’s basement.
“It looked like a tornado had struck,” she said. “We lost so much that we can’t replace — old yearbooks, a poetry book my daughter made in the second grade — treasures we kept. It’s a feeling of being violated. You think your home is a safe place to be. When you find out it’s not, it’s very unsettling.”
The county responds
Representatives from Onondaga County have said they’re doing all they can to rectify the 40-year-old problem plaguing residents of the Floradale Road area. Randy Ott from the Department of Water Environment Protection gave a presentation to the affected residents on May 24, along with several other county representatives, including county attorney James Albanese and legislator Jim Farrell.
“It was a record-setting storm,” Ott said of the July 12 rain event. “It was a 50-year storm. It broke the record set in 1949.”
Ott said he and the other representatives spoke to the residents about the existing situation and what they planned to do about it. County plans to improve the area include additional parallel sewers, another stormwater relief pump system that will be built adjacent to the existing pump station and further studies and testing to better understand why the sewage backup is occurring.
“Obviously, we would like not to have this problem happen,” Ott said. “It’s a very low-lying area, and the system is not designed to handle all of te water. It’s overloading the system. The problem is universal in homes in areas built prior to the 1970s. We’re looking at what we can do.”
In addition, Ott said that the county had offered help to the residents in the form of consultations from professional engineers and plumbers who would inspect the homes and suggest improvements homeowners could make.
Not nearly enough
But that’s not enough for the affected residents, who now can’t sell their homes because of the sewage backup problem, who lost many personal belongings in the flood and who can’t seem to get any answers from the county as to why nothing has happened yet.
Joan Middleton said the silence from the county began after she and her husband filed a notice of claim at the urging of their insurance company as well as county officials.
“We didn’t realize it was an intent to sue,” Middleton said. “We thought it was just so that we could get help. But after we did it, all communication with the county stopped. We were able to get nothing.”
The lack of communication extends beyond simple unanswered phone calls. The Middletons have sought information through FOIL from the county, the state and the Department of Environmental Conservation.
“We’ve received the documents we requested from every other agency, and on every other sewer trunk [than Bloody Brook],” Middleton said. “But the county hasn’t been of any help to us. They don’t justify it. They’re very limited on what they will give me.”
Meanwhile, residents continue to suffer the ill effects of the sewage backup. Middleton said she developed asthma at 63 after a storm in 2002 left their basement full of sewage, and her husband was diagnosed with virally induced congestive heart failure. A grandchild she was babysitting regularly at the time of the 2002 storm has severe asthma and allergies, which the child’s doctor said was virally induced.
“It could be coincidence,” Middleton conceded. “But the EPA said [these illnesses] do happen from municipal waste.”
The Middletons and their neighbors just want the situation resolved. They want answers, and they want to know their homes are safe. They don’t think it’s an unreasonable request.
“They have researched and studied this for 40 years,” Middleton said. “It should be remedied by now. I don’t want to leave this for my children to deal with, and I won’t sell this house to a young family as a starter home. It’s just not safe.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.