Queens residents demand payback for city sewage mess

Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

By Christine ChungTHE CITY

This story was originally published on Aug. 5, 2019 by THE CITY.

Astoria homeowners are fighting to recoup tens of thousands of dollars they say they were forced to spend after a city water main repair snafu sent raw sewage spewing into their homes.

The Department of Design and Construction acknowledged in letters obtained by THE CITY that a “number” of sewer-to-house connections were “inadvertently damaged” as a result of a water main project that began two summers ago.

“The contractor when excavating on 38th Street affected a series of private sewer connections that were not indicated on the maps,” DDC spokesperson Shoshana Khantold THE CITY. “As a result, several of those lines were severed.”

Yet some residents on the quiet stretch of 38th Street between 21st Avenue and Ditmars Boulevard say they can’t get city government to pay back the cash they were forced to spend on cleanup.

Some say they’re getting no clear answer on the holdup, while others say they’re caught in a bureaucratic Catch-22: a 90-day statute of limitations that ended before problems emerged.

“All of us got negatively impacted by this work,” said Jeff Fox, 40, a longtime homeowner. “It strikes me as incredibly unfair they can get away with doing shoddy work.”

‘Lost in the Bureaucracy’

For the past year, Fox and a handful of his neighbors say they’ve been ping-ponging unsuccessfully among city agencies, including the DDC, the Comptroller’s Office and the Department of Environmental Protection.

Jeff Fox said raw sewage bubbled up into the basement of his Astoria home.
Jeff Fox said raw sewage bubbled up into the basement of his Astoria home. Photo: Courtesy of Jeff Fox

Several said they filed requests with Comptroller Scott Stringer’s office, which is responsible for claims filed against the city for damage to personal property.

While none of the homeowners have received official denial letters, some say the comptroller’s office told them the claims were being rejected and advised them sue to Tully Construction, the project’s contractor.

The contractor ultimately pointed them back to the DDC, according to local politicians and residents who say they’re now considering litigation against the city. The DDC has relayed the issue back to the comptroller’s office.

“I feel like we’re lost in the bureaucracy, and it’s a shame,” said Jason Cammorata, 39, who said he spent more than $12,500 after raw feces surfaced in his basement last month.

In April 2016, the DDC awarded Tully, a Flushing-based construction company, a $30 million contract to replace water mains in parts of Long Island City and Astoria.

The project, which began in January 2017, is scheduled for completion this fall, Khan said.

She said Tully repaired sewer connections at no cost for three homeowners who reported the issue to the DDC in February 2018, instead of seeking out their own plumbers.

Khan said these three repairs amounted to about $3,000 to $4,000 for each line, and that the agency “reimbursed the contractor for the cost since the contractor was not at fault for the problem.”

At least eight houses, however, were affected.

“We understand that some other homeowners hired their own plumbers to make the repairs,” Khan added. “Those homeowners can file claims for damages with the Comptroller’s Office for reimbursement.”

Eugene Resnick, spokesperson for Stringer, refused to comment on the “individual cases” of the 38th Street homeowners.

“Every person has a right to file a claim,” said Resnick. “As we always do, we will review each case on the merits.”

Tully official could not be reached for comment.

A Smell ‘So Bad You Could Choke’

For Fox, the problems began two years ago, just months after the water main work seemed completed on his block. Anytime his tenant would run the faucet, take a shower or flush the toilet, the sewer backed up. Then it got worse, with feces and other sewage flooding the basement.

Astoria homeowner Daniel Barkas said his basement was flooded with sewage after the city's botched work on a water main.
Astoria homeowner Daniel Barkas said his basement was flooded with sewage after the city’s botched work on a water main. Photo: Courtesy Daniel Barkas

Unsure of what the cause was and unable to wait to rectify the issue, Fox said he was forced to shell out upwards of $10,000.

“When this happens, you have no choice but to fix it in the moment,” Fox said.

Less than six months later, the same thing happened at his own house, next door. The smell was “so bad you could choke,” he said.

Fox said he then began hearing murmurings from a cluster of other neighbors, who shared similar stories.

“We all started remembering back to the construction,” he said.

Roughly a month later, Fox said he filed a claim with the Comptroller’s Office and enlisted the help of local City Councilmember Costa Constantinides (D-Queens).

‘We Need to Make it Right’

But Stringer’s office informed the Council member that Fox’s claim was denied because “it was filed beyond the statute [of limitations], yet not given any further information about what exactly that meant,” according to Terence Cullen, a Constantinides spokesperson.

By state law, a claim must be filed within 90 days of an incident occurring. Constantinides told THE CITY that in this instance, it’s unclear when the clock began ticking — and exactly why the claim was denied.

For Fox and several others, sewage woes didn’t surface right away.

“We didn’t start having problems until well after” 90 days, said Daniel Barkas, 62, who’s lived on 38th Street for three decades and was notified in June that his claim was denied because of the time limit. “They hold you to these timeframes and you know it’s quite unfair because even when the contractor admits to fault, they should at least do the right thing.”

“The city already admitted fault which is usually the really hard part,” said Constantinides. “Usually, that’s the problem. The city did wrong, you have a contractor that did wrong. We need to make it right.”

This story was originally published by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.