BATON ROUGE – The numbers alone don't tell the entire story behind the dramatic increase in what the city-parish of Baton Rouge has paid out to settle lawsuits involving sewage backups.
It's true that the city-parish paid increasing amounts to compensate for cleanup and repairs caused by sewer backups between 2013 and 2015, with settlements totaling more than $2.8 million, Baton Rouge's Director of Environmental Services Karen Khonsari recently told the Louisiana Record. Individually, those settlements to residents came to $872,500 in 2013, $847,000 in 2014 and $1,136,000 in 2015, she said.
It also is true that the amount paid in 2015 was a 34 percent increase compared to 2014 and a 30 percent increase compared to 2013.
The 2015 settlement payments, however, include two major incidents that year, compensation for which surpasses the percentage of increase compared to the two years prior, Khonsari said.
The first incident occurred when a severe storm struck on April 27, spawning tornadoes and high winds, downing trees and power lines, and deluging the area with rain.
The storm also knocked out power to the South Wastewater Treatment Plant (WWTP). That plant is part of Phase II of Baton Rouge's Sanitary Sewer Overflow (SSO) Control and Wastewater Facilities program, designed to reduce the number of sewage backups. The project is expected to be completed in 2018, but when the storm hit, the plant's backup generators were not yet online.
"The settlement payments due to this incident were approximately $400,000," Khonsari said. "This incident was unfortunate, but should be considered an anomaly. Since this incident occurred, the generators that provide backup power for the South WWTP have been installed and are in operation."
The second incident occurred when two weather systems, on Oct. 24-25 and Oct. 31-Nov. 1, dumped more than 15 inches of rain on the Baton Rouge area.
"This amount of rain over a 48-hour period has not been seen for years, and even our new sewer system is not designed to handle this amount of rainfall," Khonsari said.
The first 48-hour period in particular, which saw 10.5 inches of rain, far surpassed the highest amounts that fell over two days in the Baton Route area in 2013 and 2014, 5.4 inches and 4.7 inches respectively, Khonsari said.
"The backups caused by the inflow of water into the sewer system over these two weekends resulted in over 50 claims in which settlements were paid by the city in 2015," Khonsari said. "Some of these claims will be settled and paid in early 2016. To date, these settlement payments total around $270,000."
Those two incidents in 2015 more than amount to the increase in such settlements paid by Baton Rouge in 2015, compared to 2014 and 2013, Khonsari said.
"Without considering the settlement payments associated with these two anomalies, the total would be $466,000, a 45 percent decrease from 2014," she said. "The city-parish accepts responsibility for these unfortunate incidents and reimburses customers accordingly."
Customers complain about sanitary sewer backups and manhole overflows most commonly during wet weather events when stormwater enters the sewer system through pipe defects, illicit drainage connections and leaky manholes, Khonsari said.
Since construction under the SSO Program began, the city-parish has seen a tremendous decrease in the amount of calls related to sewer backups and manhole overflows, Khonsari said.
"Outside of the SSO Program, the city-Parish continues to conduct preventative maintenance, which includes cleaning debris from lines increasing pipe capacity, conducting closed-circuit television inspections to investigate pipe condition and identify cracks and other potential sources of stormwater and groundwater infiltration, and make necessary repairs to keep the excess water out of the system," Khonsari said.