Homeowners sue utility district | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Homeowners sue utility district

Amanda Fehd

Jim Grant / Tahoe Daily Tribune file / Paul Sciuto, assistant general manager at South Tahoe Public Utility District, holds the damaged rubber gasket that caused treated sewer water to spill.

Two people are suing South Tahoe Public Utility District for $525,000 over a large sewage spill last fall that flowed over their Grass Lake Road property in Meyers.

About 430,000 gallons of chlorinated wastewater spilled from a manhole at the district’s Luther Pass pumping station on the night of Oct. 23, 2004, and flowed across the property of Beth Jett and Kendall Pearce.

A newly replaced gasket was blamed for the spill.

An investigation by Lahontan Water Board found the district had done nothing wrong, said district spokesman Dennis Cocking. Still, Lahontan fined the district $45,000, about 10 cents a gallon.

“This spill is a great example of how you can do everything right and spills still occur,” Cocking said.

Jett and Pearce are asking for $100,000 for physical damage to their property, including their private well, landscaping, driveway, furnishings and house. They ask for another $25,000 for not being able to live in the house and cleanup costs.

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The complaint also alleges $400,000 in lost real estate value because of requirements that owners reveal to potential buyers that a spill occurred and could again occur.

While there is an increased risk of being affected by a spill if you live next to the pump station, Cocking said, the station was in operation before any houses were built in the area.

Jett and Pearce also ask for compensation for attorneys fees and emotional damages because the district “should have known” they were being evicted from their temporary housing and being “forced out on the street during the Christmas holidays,” according to the complaint.

The district made an effort to resolve the issue, Cocking said, and the homeowners were continually unsatisfied. The district had rented a house for the couple in the Tahoe Keys.

“We just kind of drew a line in the sand,” Cocking said. “After the new well was drilled and they could move back into their house, we told them, ‘If you want to stay in the house, it’s up to you. It’s on your dime.'”

But William Cherry, Jett and Pearce’s lawyer, said his clients could not move into the house because the new well did not deliver potable water.

During the spill, the home’s old well was “inundated” with dirt, which contains bacteria, he said. As evidence, he’s got a jar of “gunk” that came out of their bathtub after the spill. Cherry suspects the groundwater was contaminated by bacteria through soil erosion.

The homeowners installed an expensive filtration system on their well before moving back into the home.

The dispute will revolve around how much damage actually occurred to the property, including the plaintiff’s private well, Cocking said.

Coliform bacteria was found in the North Upper Truckee river after the spill, but investigators did not find the bacteria came from the spilled wastewater, which Cocking said does not contain bacteria because it is chlorinated and tests for bacteria show none present.

However, the bacteria in the river could have come from soil erosion from the spill, he said.

“Coliform bacteria are everywhere,” Cocking said. “Coliform bacteria in a well is not an unusual occurrence. There’s a number of people on that street who have had positive coliform tests on their wells.”

The bacteria found in the river and the well was not fecal coliform, which is a health concern, Cocking said.

The district spent $5.7 million in summer 2004 and 2005 to replace their export line over Luther Pass.

No wastewater is recycled in the Lake Tahoe Basin because of California law. The district exports all wastewater, after solids are dried and removed, to Alpine County, where it is used to irrigate ranch land.