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When Petey King and his family walked into their West Little Rock home after a three-day trip to visit relatives in Houston in February 2008, the first thing they noticed was the smell. Led by his nose, King followed the increasingly foul odor downstairs and found a horror show.
“I walked through the rooms that were down there and the sewage was still coming out through the toilet and through the tub,” King said. “I was just absolutely in shock.” Sometime during the weekend, a subcontractor for Little Rock Wastewater was excavating across the street when they pierced a sewage line leading to King's home at 1 Ridgeview Court, in a gated subdivision off Cantrell Road. A cleanup expert hired by King would later estimate that between 20,000 and 30,000 gallons of raw sewage flowed into the lower level of the showplace home — featured twice in the glossy décor magazine “At Home in Arkansas” — over the next few days. “It was overflowing,” King said. “There was [feces] visibly on the floor. Anything that goes down the garbage disposal; anything that goes down the sewer was on our floor.”
In the weeks that followed, King says that Little Rock Wastewater — which, like many state and local government agencies has broad immunity from civil lawsuits — did next to nothing to help them clean up the mess, and nothing to pay for what was destroyed. Saying their home is unlivable now due to fecal bacteria in the air and crawlspace and a growing infestation of mold, King and his wife Angela Harrison have filed a lawsuit against Little Rock Wastewater and their subcontractors, seeking over a $1.7 million in damages.
King and Harrison bought the 5,000-square-foot home in the exclusive Ridge subdivision in 2002. He said they extensively redecorated after moving in, and thought they'd live there “forever.” After the house was flooded with sewage, an expert in hazardous spills called in by King and Harrison told them that it was unsafe to take anything from the house. He recommended that everything on the lower floors that touched sewage — including furniture, carpet, clothing, personal items and everything in the children's play room — should be immediately bagged up and thrown away. The central heating system was flooded with sewage, and had been blowing warm, bacteria-infested air throughout the upper floors for days, so experts told them everything else in the house was contaminated and unsafe to touch as well.
For the next month and a half, King said, they were effectively homeless, staying with relatives. “We couldn't take anything out of the house. No clothing,” King said. “We lived out of the back of my car with my family… That's hard with a family. We couldn't take anything out. Nothing. We left with what was on our bodies and that was it.” Eventually, cleanup crews with damage mitigation companies Service Master and Atoka would gut the downstairs, taking out even the floors and sheetrock walls. King said that the air in the house, the sub-floor and the soil under the house still test positive for fecal bacteria, even over a year later, and the lower floor has been invaded by mold. They have been told it's unsafe to enter the home without a respirator. Since then, King said, excavations by Little Rock Wastewater have changed the way water flows in the area, sending rainwater under the house and undermining the foundation.
While King prefers not to comment on the financial cost of the cleanup, it has been expensive. He said that Wastewater has done little to help, and has done nothing financially. “All that was done by us,” King said. “Not one time has there been anybody from Little Rock Wastewater … that has been over to the house. They tested the air, but it was [done by] the subcontractor.” Fed up with the situation, King and Harrison hired a lawyer, and filed suit in August of last year. Though Little Rock Wastewater cited its immunity from civil liability, a judge has ruled the lawsuit can go forward. A trial has been set for January 2010.
Joe Schaffner, a spokesperson for Little Rock Wastewater, disputes King's claims that the agency did nothing to help the family clean up the mess. “From day one, me, my boss and several other Little Rock Wastewater personnel have been on the phone with the Kings,” he said. “Every time we hung up the phone, they seemed to be okay with the answers they were given and the information they provided. Then all of a sudden, we'd get a call from city hall saying we need to do something about this…. We did everything we could on our part, but it didn't flow the way it normally flows.”
Schaffner said that Wastewater usually has less than ten incidents a year in which a customer's home is damaged by water or sewage through something that is the fault of the municipality. He said that in the case of sewage spills, the normal procedure is to dispatch a crew, vacuum up all the sewage, and then spread an enzyme that kills any harmful bacteria associated with the spill.
Little Rock Wastewater is immune from civil lawsuits, Schaffner said, and once didn't have any sort of policy to financially compensate homeowners for cost incurred over spills. “Out of public relations,” he said, Little Rock Wastewater has developed a reimbursement policy which can reimburse homeowners for up to $750 in damages. Any claims larger than that have to be approved by the Sanitary Sewer Committee, but “ nine times out of 10,” Schaffner said, claims are settled within the $750 parameter.
“The liability of claiming that we're at fault here is huge,” Schaffner said. “That's why we have tort immunity; not to take advantage of residents, but because everybody in the world would sue Little Rock Wastewater.”
Schaffner said that during talks with Little Rock Wastewater, King and Harrison were unreasonable in their demands. As an example, he cited their belief that everything that had touched sewage should be ripped up and thrown out, including items that could be sanitized like a porcelain bathtub, a toilet and ceramic tile. Still, he insists that the house is livable, and that Little Rock Wastewater was trying to work with the family to clean up the damage, until King and Harrison got their attorney involved.
“ Once lawyers are involved,” Schaffner said, “it shuts doors. Now it's in the hands of the courts. And it escalated to that point, and that happened because of the Kings.”
King calls the response from Little Rock Wastewater “disheartening.” He said that back during the summer, he and his wife came to the realization that they would never be able to go back to 1 Ridgeview Court. They have since bought a new house in West Little Rock. With the court date out on the horizon, however, what they lost is often on their minds.
“It's just the fact that they can do that to a family that really, really upsets me,” King said. “This shouldn't happen to any family… It's been horrible.”
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