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Project targets NCC sewage overflows; Homeowners to get help removing illegal hookups - News Journal

Written by ADAM TAYLOR 

New Castle County will soon begin what could be a $5 million crackdown on thousands of Brandywine Hundred residents who have sump pumps or French drains illegally hooked up to their sewer pipes.

The hookups contribute to the county's combined sewer overflow problem. Stormwater goes into the same system of pipes that carries sewage to Wilmington's treatment plant, and during heavy rains the system gets overwhelmed and untreated sewage gets diverted and dumped into the Delaware River.

County officials decided to begin their efforts later this month with a pilot program in the Green Acres community. If measurements show that a significant amount of water was diverted from the sewer system, all of the homes in Brandywine Hundred will be inspected. The pilot program is expected to cost between $30,000 and $60,000.

The county is taking the action not only to keep the river clean, but because it faces a multimillion-dollar fine from state and federal environmental agencies if it doesn't significantly reduce its raw-sewage discharges by 2018, county Engineering and Environmental Services Manager Jon Husband said.

"If it works, we could save the county up to $100 million by not having to install larger new underground pipes," Husband said. "We hope to get quick cooperation from the residents of Green Acres."

Phyllis Lann, who heads the Green Acres Civic Association, said she knew of the county's plans, but didn't know it was to reduce the sewage discharges. She thinks many residents won't be happy about the plan.

"I can already hear the neighbors screaming when they find out," Lann said. "I've spoken with a few of them and their first reaction was that they can't live without their sump pumps and French drains."

They won't have to live without them, Husband said, but they will have to disconnect them from the sewer system and redirect them into their yards.

County inspectors will go to the approximately 400 homes to ask if they can inspect them. If they find an illegal hookup, they will explain what has to be done to disconnect it and where the water should be released into the yard. The county will reimburse homeowners up to $1,050 for the work. The inspectors will return to make sure the work was properly done.

Husband is hopeful the reimbursements will help homeowners cooperate and let inspectors into their homes. If they don't cooperate, officials will seek legal remedies to gain entry, according to county documents about the program.

The pilot program should be completed by the fall, Husband said. If the disconnects show that enough water was diverted from the underground pipes, inspections will then take place at all 24,000 Brandywine Hundred homes. That effort could cost as much as $5 million. County officials estimate about 3,600 of those homes have illegal hookups.

The county has seven projects totaling $43 million under way now to install larger pipes to help minimize the sewage from Brandywine Hundred that goes into the river during heavy rains, Husband said.

Bob Valihura, president of the Council of Civic Organizations of Brandywine Hundred, said he just learned of the pilot program. He said the inspections sound overly intrusive, but realizes something had to be done.

"I would like to see broader input from the community about how best to implement a voluntary program," Valihura said. "But the problem is real, a solution is needed and it can be resolved. But it will take a cooperative effort from the community and county officials."

There is money for the pilot program, but not yet for a full Brandywine Hundred initiative, said Ed Milowicki, the county's acting chief financial officer. The county is facing a $5 million shortfall in its operating budget and could face a $10 million shortfall next year. The money for the sewer project would come from the capital budget.

Councilman William Powers worries that residents will not follow the county's directions on where to redirect the water.

"The county will tell them where to place it, but people will move it because that's where they like to have their picnic table and the water will go into neighbors' yards," Powers said. "You're going to cause problems."

Councilmen George Smiley and Joe Reda said the county shouldn't have to pay for the disconnections.

"It's wrong," Smiley said. "You buy a house, you've got a problem, it's your problem to rectify. There are better ways we could spend that $5 million."

Councilmen Jea Street said his district, which includes Wilmington, has longtime flooding problems but isn't getting this kind of money to fix them.

"Here again, it's an issue of the 'haves' and the 'have nots,' " Street said. "The 'haves' get the attention. And the 'have nots'? They have not."

The plan does not require the council's approval. County spokeswoman Angie Basiouny said county officials will try to work with the council about their concerns, but the pilot program will go on despite their objections.

Councilman Bob Weiner, whose district includes part of Brandywine Hundred, supports the plan.

"It's cost-effective," he said. "The alternative would be more expensive repairs and a possible large fine if we're not in compliance by 2018."

State Rep. Greg Lavelle, R-Sharpley, said he worries about street flooding. Many sump pumps already pump out water that winds up on roads.

"In a lot of communities, streets become Lake Placid in the wintertime," Lavelle said. "The state legislators from the area don't want one homeowner's water to become their neighbors' problem."

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