What causes a sewer backup anyway?

If this has happened to you, you are not alone. Fortunately, there is a path to reclaiming your home and your peace of mind.

It is called the Oklahoma Governmental Tort Claims Act. 1 The “GTCA” was created by, you guessed it, the Oklahoma government in order to “(1) to promote prompt investigations, (2) to provide early opportunity for correction of dangerous conditions, (3) to promote speedy and amicable settlements of claims and (4) to permit the governmental entity to prepare for fiscal consequences.” Sounds good, right?

As we all know, dealing with any government comes with obstacles. The GTCA is no different, but Buxton Law Group has been navigating through these hurdles on behalf of our clients for over a decade. This article explains some of the ways a municipality can prevent their sewer system from backing up and flooding homes and businesses before a problem arises. This should not serve as legal advice, but as a general guide for sewer backup victims. For more in-depth information or for a case review, contact our office or send an email to jim@buxtonlawgroup.com.

“What causes a sewer backup anyway?”

“My house is flooded with sewage, but how? I wasn’t even using the plumbing fixtures in my house, yet hundreds of gallons of raw sewage came right up and onto my floors, walls and furniture.” If you are like so many other Oklahomans that have experienced a sewer backup, these questions may be going through your mind.

Buried deep beneath our homes, streets, even under our courthouses, is the infrastructure of a modern society. Going back as far as the ancient Romans, there has been some sort of sewer, what we today call the sanitary sewer system. It’s a pretty simple system: it is gravity fed, it carries everything we and our neighbors put down the commode, the tub, the washing machines, the sink. It takes that all away from homes and to a place where it is safe. It’s out of sight, out of mind. Governments build them and charge their residents to use them.

Municipalities are bound to use reasonable diligence and care to see that the sewer system is not clogged and is liable for negligence in the performance of such duty to a sewer backup victim after reasonable notice of the clogged condition of such sewer. This is called the “standard of care”. That standard encompasses a plethora of problems that can occur at any given time in a sanitary sewer system and requires municipalities to prevent them from occurring.

51 O.S. §§ 151 et al.
Calvert v. Tulsa Pub. Schools, Indep. Sch. Dist. No. 1 of Tulsa County, 1996 OK 106, ¶ 19.

Common Causes of Clogs

More often than not, a clog in the city’s main sewer line is caused by roots, grease or a combination of the two. At its most basic and disgusting level, a sewer system is a damp, nutrient-rich environment for plants (think cattle manure for plant fertilizer). These roots will turn into “root balls” that look like a steel wool sponge throughout the diameter of the main line. Where roots have grown once they will grow again, year after year, because of the holes created by the initial root growth. And, because municipalities often use a high-pressure water jet to cut the roots, the don’t actually kill it. This makes it grow back thicker and fuller in the next growth cycle.

Grease can accumulate in the main lines of the sanitary sewer system in many ways. Fecal matter contains grease. Some people rinse their Saturday morning bacon grease down the sink. In areas of town where there are restaurants with inadequate grease traps, it can enter into the main lines. All of these will create a sort of “plug” that is nearly impossible to penetrate and, because grease and water don’t mix, will not wash away easily. Instead, it will cling to the sides of the main line pipe, much like cholesterol in an artery, until it constricts the flow so much that it stops.

Municipal governments and their public utilities department know about these things. Their employees are trained on this stuff before they are even allowed to work for the city. The Department of Environmental Quality, or DEQ, mandates that wastewater operators be licensed by the DEQ before they can perform certain tasks, with levels from “D” all the way up to “A” licensees.

Oklahoma City v. Romano, 1967 OK 191, ¶ 9, citing City of Holdenville v. Griggs, 1966 OK 34.

One form of treatment for roots and/or grease is chemicals. The municipality should be placing some form of chemical treatment, such as copper sulfate or a degreaser, to kill roots and break up grease. The municipality should also have a schedule for jetting or rodding, a type of high-pressure hydraulic cleaning that washes the interior walls of the main line to sweep away grease and other debris and cut roots.

This maintenance should not be done only once a backup occurs, but repeatedly, and far in advance of any warning signs of a potential backup. This is called preventative maintenance, which the DEQ states can prevent up to 85% of sanitary sewer blockages. It includes studies to test the integrity of the system, as well as chemical and mechanical treatments. Sadly, most municipalities do not have a preventative maintenance program in place, leading to reactive maintenance at best and a system with problems that the operator cannot keep up with. The system is a ticking time bomb at that point.

Inflow & Infiltration, Deterioration, and More

Inflow and infiltration, or “I & I”, is stormwater and groundwater that enters the sanitary sewer system, overloading it and causing it to surcharge. There is only one place for sewage to go from there: residences and businesses connected to the line. The term “sanitary sewer system” is important to note, because unlike a combined system (which are not found in Oklahoma and actually illegal), the rain and groundwater are not supposed to get in. “Sanitary” is an ironic term for the sewer, but it means that it is designed to carry wastewater only. When it has cracks and holes in the system, from deterioration or roots or just poor maintenance, inflow and infiltration can cause catastrophic sewer backup damages.

There are three basic types of materials that sewer lines are composed of. The cast iron pipe of the olden days, the vitrified clay pipe of the 50’s and 60’s, and the modern polyvinyl chloride or “PVC” pipes of today. Many sewer systems in Oklahoma are so outdated that cast iron and clay pipes account for the majority of the sewer system, especially in older neighborhoods. All of these have their weaknesses. Iron rusts and cracks with temperature changes over time. Main lines made of clay have “joints” of pipe that are the shortest of the bunch, typically ten feet or less. Roots, cracks, and catastrophic failure from heavy equipment crushing the clay pipe are more likely to occur at the connection between two joints.

Municipalities, and everyone else with common sense, recognize that most things are not designed to last forever. Sanitary sewer main lines have a life of up to fifty years before they deteriorate so badly that they crack and collapse. Yet, most municipalities have not replaced sewer lines since they were installed decades ago. In older parts of town, the system could be as old as the town itself. Sure, it costs money to fix it, but financial and technical assistance from government and insurance agencies that are more than willing to help, and actually offer grants and money-match programs to get the job done, are not utilized until it is too late.

Buxton Law Group has represented sewer backup victims for more than a decade. Our knowledge of the GTCA, our trial experience and expertise, and our comprehensive understanding of sanitary sewer systems allows us to provide our clients with aggressive representation that is second to none. If you find yourself in need of legal representation for a sewer backup matter, we are happy to discuss and review your case without charge.

For more information, check out some of our other articles on sewer backup litigation or give us a call.

We’re here to help.