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Bill aims to help Western Pa. homeowners deal with sewer line repairs

| Sunday, June 8, 2014, 11:09 p.m.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Terry's Plumbing employees (from left) Jake Marciniak, Clay Heupel, and Jason Mertz fix a residence sewer line that connects the house to the main line in Perry North Thursday, June 5, 2014. Wayne Fontana introduced a bill that would enable municipalities to create funds that would help pay for residential sewer lines as repairs can sometimes run in several thousand dollars.

Diane Mikulan didn't know what to do when sewage began backing up inside and under her 100-year-old Hampton home.

The self-employed house cleaner said initial estimates for fixing the problem — broken clay pipes running from her house to the street — ranged from $5,000 to $10,000. She eventually found Terry's Plumbing of Ross to do the job for $3,100.

“That's a lot of money to me, but I had to take care of this and they did a great job. It was awful,” said Mikulan, 52. “I put it on a credit card. I'll be paying this off for years.”

State Sen. Wayne Fontana said he's heard similar stories from numerous constituents, particularly in the South Hills, which prompted him to sponsor legislation to help residents pay for costly sewer line repairs.

Officials said the problem is widespread with older homes and sewer pipes in Western Pennsylvania, especially in Pittsburgh. They could not provide exact numbers.

About 77 percent of the city's 165,421 homes were built before 1960, according to the U.S. Census.

“When you have 50-, 60-, 80-year-old homes, nothing is completely watertight because the old terra cotta sewer lines are just put together with some cement or caulking,” said Terry Mertz, owner of Terry's Plumbing.

Fontana said the bill would enable municipalities to establish funds — but provides no funding — for repairing pipes from homes to main sewer lines. If the bill passes, the next step would be to identify funding sources, which could include low-interest loans or foundation grants.

The Committee on Environmental Resources and Energy approved the bill last week, and it will come before the full Senate.

“What we're trying to do is establish a fund of some sort, if we can, to help them pay for these types of repairs,” Fontana said. “It's a starting point of a discussion. How to raise the money, that would be done on the local level.”

Older municipalities across the country are struggling with the same issue under a federal law that requires them to reduce the amount of sewage flowing into waterways during rainstorms.

The Allegheny County Sanitary Authority attributes 40 percent of excess water it treats on dry days to water infiltrating damaged sewer pipes, Fontana said. That increases to 80 percent when it rains.

Pittsburgh and communities in Allegheny County are under court order to comply with the federal rule. Many ordinances require homeowners to test the pipes, known as laterals, before they can sell their homes.

Alan Bailey, 35, of Brookline said owners have abandoned houses in his neighborhood because the cost of repairing sewer lines is greater than the home value. He said he is organizing a community group to lobby for solutions.

“Everyone is concerned about it,” he said. “This is a working-class neighborhood, and no one has $5,000 laying around to pay for sewer repairs.”

Pittsburgh City Council members said the city cannot afford to subsidize the repairs.

“This is an inherited problem for all of us,” said Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak of Carrick, who represents South Hills neighborhoods. “I think the bill is a good thing, but I guess we all question where is the money coming from.”

State Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, suggested it might be better to implement a sewer line insurance program rather than have governments pay for private sewer line repair.

The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority required customers to pay $5 monthly for line insurance before ending the controversial program in 2010. An Allegheny County Judge later ruled the program was illegal.

“It was a great idea. The problem is the way they handled it,” Ferlo said. “I think a lot of private property owners would do that rather than paying out $6,000 or $7,000 or even $10,000.”

Bob Bauder is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-765-2312 or

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