ROCHELLE, Ga. — Monesa Coney bought her young sons a video game console this summer to keep them from playing in her yard, where heavy rains are followed by foul-smelling liquid that bubbles up from the town’s sewer system.
“There’s stool and feces everywhere. It gets like that every time it rains,” said Coney, who lives in a home tucked behind a small pumping station connected to the sewer system. “I hate that I ever put a down payment on it to try to buy this house. It’s horrible here.”
Outside the pumping station, two paper signs tacked to a utility pole give notice of sewage spills in the area July 8 and Aug. 17. Four days after the latest notice, raw waste still gushed from a manhole cover where the paved street turns to dirt road. The sewage formed a small stream flowing downhill beside the road, leaving wads of soggy toilet tissue in the weeds and staining the grass.
Longtime residents in the community of 1,100 say they’ve been living with sewage spills for years, but their complaints to the city are often dismissed as problems with household plumbing. Finally on Aug. 13, eight people sued the city in U.S. District Court seeking to force it to fix the 48-year-old pipes on the north side of town where most of the rural city’s black residents have lived for decades.
The lawsuit says the court has jurisdiction to dictate sewer repairs because the spills are fouling nearby Mill Creek, which flows into the Alapaha River, in violation of the federal Clean Water Act. It contends the spills have been happening every three or four months for at least the past five years.
After recent months of unusually wet weather, things have been particularly bad in neighborhoods on the downhill side of railroad tracks. Cracks in concrete sewer pipes and manholes let storm water flow in, flooding the system and forcing raw waste backward into people’s yards and homes.
The Georgia Environmental Protection Division responded to a Rochelle resident’s complaint of waste spewing across portions of a 10-block area in March. The agency concluded there had been a major spill of more than 10,000 gallons of raw sewage. A March 29 letter from state regulators says Rochelle city officials were aware of “frequent spill events” in the past but had made “minimal to no progress” in fixing the problems.
The complaint and the lawsuit both started with 67-year-old John Jackson who reached out to state regulators and the nonprofit environmental law firm Earthjustice. The firm filed suit on behalf of him and seven co-plaintiffs.
Jackson said he’s been shoveling dirt over sewage spilled in his yard since 1983. He keeps waste from flooding the drains inside his house using a homemade relief valve. He cut a hole in the pipe outside and covered it with a sleeve made from a flattened soda can, which pops off when there’s too much pressure in the sewer line.
“I call it Roe-Hell,” Jackson said of his hometown. “You can’t believe the conditions people live under here.”
Rochelle’s attorneys have yet to file a formal response to the lawsuit. However, before the suit was filed the city agreed to a consent order with state regulators to repair the sewer system as soon as possible. An engineering firm hired by the city to inspect its sewer lines concluded in a July report that “the collection system is causing health hazards to the citizens of Rochelle.” Repairs have been estimated to cost more than $542,000.
The city’s entire 2013 budget was $808,629. Rochelle officials are trying to get permission pay for the project with $499,807 in block grant funding intended for sewer improvements in other parts of town.
“We’re doing everything we possibly can to correct the situation,” said Rochelle Mayor James Rhodes, who blames the problem on recent accumulations of 24 inches of rainfall in the past two months. He called the spills “an act of God, just like a hurricane or a tornado.”
But residents suing the city say they’ve been living with sewage spills for years, even decades. Sittie Butts says her mother has been dealing with overflowing sewage since the 1970s, and she never suspected the city sewer system was to blame. “I just thought it was my mama’s pipes,” said Butts, who shares the house.
Around the corner from Butts’ house, Rufus Howard listens at his kitchen sink as someone flushes the bathroom toilet. He frowns as water gurgles in the pipe, sounding disconcertingly close to the drain. Howard says that in March the sewer line backed up and came gushing from under his house where his washing machine’s drain connects to the pipe. The house was spared because it sits more than a foot off the ground.
“It was coming out from under there like a river was coming out,” said Howard, who estimates he’s had sewage problems for at least 12 years. “It was shooting out and it was stinking like I don’t know what.”
Robert Ferguson, who runs the funeral home next to the railroad tracks, said frequent sewage backups forced him to close a bathroom at his business in the mid-1990s. Ferguson and his friend James Woods recalled a Sunday years ago at Piney Grove Missionary Baptist Church when waste flooded the annex used for church potlucks and socials behind the sanctuary on Easter.
Engineers hired by Rochelle to inspect more than 5,000 feet of sewer line north of the railroad tracks pinned the problem on cracked pipes and manholes installed in 1965 as well as tree roots and other obstructions blocking the lines. They also decided 3,100 feet of sewer pipes need to be expanded to handle the city’s wastewater demands.
Toni Sawyer, an attorney for Rochelle, said issues raised in the lawsuit should be solved by the repairs the city is already working toward with state regulators. Alyssa Coe, the attorney for the suing residents, said her clients will have more of a voice in the outcome by going to federal court.
Jackson said he’s weary of waiting for solutions.
“Since I retired I’ve been burying (expletive) every time it rains,” Jackson said. “I just made up my mind I ain’t going to bury anymore.”