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Santa Rosa officials tackle severed sewer lines in Tubbs fire rebuild areas

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For a man whose severed sewer pipe resulted in a malodorous mess in front of his brand-new house, Gary Barber had a remarkably good attitude.

“The city got out here within 10 minutes,” said Barber, a retired contractor, recalling the day three months ago when he alerted Santa Rosa officials that raw sewage was pooling in front of his newly rebuilt home in Coffey Park.

A contractor operating a backhoe for PG&E had sheared off Barber’s sewer lateral, the pipe carrying waste from his house on Randon Way to the main sewer line under the street.

City workers “found the problem, and cleaned it up,” said Barber. “I can’t say enough good things about them.”

“It was a good experience,” he added, “other than the sh--show.”

Temperatures exceeding 2,000 degrees during the October 2017 Tubbs fire destroyed large sections of the gas and electric lines running under the streets in Coffey Park. During a six-month “joint trenching” exercise to replace those utilities, PG&E and its contractors damaged some sewer laterals.

That damage often went undetected for months until unfortunate residents moved into rebuilt homes, then quickly experienced sewage woes. One resident’s toilet drained continuously. Another saw sewage mysteriously back up into his shower.

To spare returning homeowners this kind of unpleasant surprise, Santa Rosa officials recently decided to take a more proactive approach. Working with PG&E, the city intends to inspect all the sewer laterals in the rebuild area where they replaced the joint trench, said Gabe Osburn, Santa Rosa’s deputy director of development services.

Those inspections will be more rigorous than before. Instead of just running water through the sewer lateral to make sure it works, builders are being urged by the city to snake a plumbing camera through the pipe to ensure that it’s undamaged.

If that inspection reveals damage, and PG&E is responsible, said Osburn, “we’re gonna make them fix it.”

The city provided seven addresses to The Press Democrat — five in Coffey Park and two in Fountaingrove — where damage had occurred to sewer pipes. While not an epidemic — and not unusual or surprising, Osburn allowed, considering the size of the joint trenching project — that number is expected to rise as more people move back into their rebuilt homes.

PG&E took responsibility for the damage to pipes at three of the Coffey Park homes. It had not been made aware of damage at one of the Fountaingrove residences, according to PG&E spokeswoman Deanna Contreras, and the company is still discussing with the city what happened at the other home.

Wherever PG&E is at fault, she added, “we will complete those repairs to the customer’s satisfaction.”

John Shami had two backups at his new home on Hopper Avenue. Mud had clogged a section of his sewer lateral pipe. No one’s sure how it got there. PG&E isn’t taking the rap for that one. The city is awaiting “results of video inspection” before passing final judgment, Bob Oller, Santa Rosa’s construction project manager, said in an email.

Shami isn’t sure whose fault it was. He’s just happy that his plumbing is fixed — and that the city is taking a closer look at this issue.

“That was just nasty,” he recalled, of sewage coming up through his shower drain. “And to have that happen in your brand new home.”

“I really, truly, don’t want to see anyone go through what I went through.”

Standing in front of his house on Cashew Road, 88-year-old Leo Schwab pointed at the large steel plate covering the hole excavated by PG&E in the middle of the street. Having damaged the main sewer line running under Cashew, the utility intends to replace 100 or so yards of it, said Schwab, who was pleased to report that he and his wife, Mira, had experienced no sewage backup.

“So far, so good,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Ausmurph88.

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