BUCKHANNON — Daylight might be scarce since October’s end, but when she opens her window each morning, Susan Beathe tries to have a positive attitude and search for the sunshine.
Instead, her view is obstructed by four-foot high piles of dirt and a backhoe that towers over it. It’s Thursday, Nov. 21, just two days before Thanksgiving, and Susan and her husband, Bill Beathe, say the City of Buckhannon’s equipment — and mess — has been parked there for weeks. This is just the latest part of a project that dates back months, from before the Strawberry Festival.
With the weather worsening, Susan is worried there is no end in sight for the blight in her neighborhood.
“I’m afraid it’s going to be like this until spring,” she said. “There’s no way you can get away from it … you open up the curtains and think, ‘Oh, today’s going to be a good day,’ and then you see a pile of dirt.”
The Beathes joke about wrapping tinsel and twinkling lights around the piles to decorate it for the holidays, but they’re serious about one thing — they’re tired of looking at the city’s unfinished work. Right now, the City of Buckhannon’s sanitary department, which is charged with completing both stormwater and sanitary sewer projects and upgrades, is installing about 352 linear feet of PVC sewer pipe. Both Myrna and Swisher streets have been alternately barricaded for months so workers can complete a two-phase project involving replacing a faulty sewer line and then demolishing and installing a new culvert.
Susan is concerned because the project has stretched on, often with long periods of inactivity. She has knee replacement surgery scheduled in January, and she’s worried about accessing her house. The Beathes’ front door is on Myrna Street, but they have to approach it from Swisher Street, the road on which their driveway is located.
Bill says he’s been calling city officials for several weeks but feels the family isn’t getting clear answers. He feels patronized.
“This has been going on since August, and I’ve called everybody I can call, and I don’t know what else to do,” he said. “I realize when you go digging in the ground, you never know what you’re going to find, and I don’t think anyone’s ever lied to us, but they’ve said, ‘Oh yes, we’re going to make it a priority,’ and ‘Oh, yes, we’ll be there tomorrow’ and then days go by. Sometimes, you feel like you’re getting the runaround.”
City officials say that’s not the case. Fixing the sewer pipe on Myrna and Swisher streets and the failing culvert on Swisher street has been complicated by a number of factors, the city’s sanitary superintendent, Erasmo Rizo, said Tuesday as he surveyed the site.
In fact, it was an unplanned project that popped up sometime before the West Virginia Strawberry Festival in May, when waste department workers collecting neighborhood garbage reported that Swisher Street “flexed” when they drove over it, Rizo said. For safety purposes, the city blocked off Swisher Street and planned on fixing what they determined to be the root cause — a deteriorating culvert.
But the plot quickly thickened.
“Around the same time that the road (Swisher Street) was closed, we received numerous calls that the manhole in that area had odor problems and that there were back-ups in homes and their toilets were flushing slow, so we came on several of those maintenance calls, and we determined that the actual issue was that the culvert had failed on top of our sewer line, causing it to separate, as well as a pinch point in the flow of the sewer,” Rizo said.
City officials realized that not only did the sewer department need to replace the sewer line and culvert, it was also necessary to reroute the sewer line itself to put more distance between that line and a nearby water line. Rizo said old maps didn’t reflect just how close the sewer line was to the water line. He said the two must be separated by at least 10 feet.
Rizo and public works director Jerry Arnold say much of the delay in getting the work done boils down to the weather, stormwater and groundwater levels. Since the beginning of November, the weather’s been wet, which has hindered progress, Rizo said.
“When we’re working on the sewer line, we literally have to plug the sewer line upstream,” he explained. “The water backs up a lot quicker due to the amount of rain and [groundwater] infiltration and it impacts all residents upstream and opens up the possibility of flooding homes, and we can’t take that chance.”
He said that means the city can only work on the project for four hours on a good day.
The Beathes say they are sympathetic about the nature of the work but wonder how much of a priority the project actually is.
“This was blocked off in August, and here it is almost December — they’ve got to understand our frustration with this,” Bill said. “Susan opens up the curtains every morning and we look at a dirt pile.”
“There’s just been a lackadaisical attitude about the whole thing,” Susan added. “They tell us things, but is it a reason, or is it an excuse?”
As time went by, Susan noticed workers were not on site very often. So beginning Oct. 30, she began keeping track of when the city was actually working on the project.
Over the next month, she saw workers on site just three days: Nov. 2, Nov. 14 and Nov. 15.
And if the wet fall weather is a problem, why did the city wait so long to begin working on the sewer line?
When asked why the city didn’t repair the infrastructure sooner — during the dry summer months, for instance — mayor David McCauley said the city decided it couldn’t pull workers off other projects that were already ongoing and had been budgeted for.
“There were projects already in the queue that had been budgeted for,” McCauley told The Record Delta Tuesday. “Their schedule is basically made out ahead of time, and we can’t divert resources from things already in the works, such as Camden Avenue, just because somebody’s being the squeakier wheel. We can’t pull up on something we’ve been working on, because that’s not fair to those folks.”
McCauley said Myrna Street and Swisher Street residents haven’t been without water and sewer service and are “still getting the bang for their buck.”
The Beathes said they’ve heard rumors that the Myrna/Swisher Street project had been delayed because workers were pulled off the job to help with the Colonial Theatre restoration — a claim McCauley unequivocally disputed.
“There’s been no involvement [of sewer department employees] at the Colonial Theatre at all,” the mayor said. Other city workers were involved in that project and others on Main Street.
Arnold said the city hopes to wrap up the sewer line portion of the project within the next two weeks. They will then re-evaluate what to do about the culvert, and bad weather could continue to slow things down even further.
Only about 10 residents are impacted by the project obstructing the two streets now, but if the line is blocked on a high water level day, 100 homes could be detrimentally affected by backups and flooding, Arnold said.
“It’s a tough one,” he said. “Pretty much all summer, they’ve had to deal with dirt in front of their house. They don’t want us out there anymore than we want to be out there, but it’s not as simple as saying, ‘We have a pretty day, let’s fix it.’ If this had just been a culvert issue, we could have done that in a half a day. I can see why they’re frustrated, but it can’t rain, and there can’t be (stormwater and groundwater) infiltration.”
The Beathes talked with Rizo on Tuesday morning and said they appreciated him explaining in more detail what’s taken so long. Still, they’re looking forward to the day when dirt won’t be all they see from their indoor and outdoor sitting areas.
“We want to yell, we want to stomp our feet and act like a little child, but I don’t know how far that would get us,” Bill Beathe said. “We’re not trying to be overly dramatic, but at the same time, I think we have some legitimate concerns.”