Published in the July 19, 2019 edition.

MELROSE — Some Brazil Street residents don’t think the city cares about them — and that it certainly has not been doing the right things — since a mishap in June sent raw sewage spewing into four homes in the neighborhood. They have been unable to stay in their residences, a lot of their belongings are ruined and they want to know what Melrose is going to do for them. 

The city, on the other hand, knows it does not have barrels filled with money with which to do all that it is being asked to, and says its financial obligation to the affected residents is being met. In a situation like this, officials advise, patience is needed because nothing can happen overnight.

Thursday at the Appropriations Committee meeting, after our print edition deadline, the aldermen were expected to begin a discussion on all things Brazil Street. That order was brought by Ward 5 Alderman Shawn MacMaster and Alderman-at-Large Monica Medeiros.

Mayor Gail Infurna and her administration have taken some heat for the way they responded in the aftermath of the June 20 incident, from both residents and some elected officials.

As part of the city’s response, Weston & Sampson Engineers Inc. was hired to review the circumstances of the sewer backup.

About 10:30 on the morning of June 20, a DPW crew was called to a section of Brazil Street after being told that water was seeping out of the ground at a water main box. This led them to investigate the sanitary sewer, which in this area is a 6-inch diameter, vitrified clay pipe and was installed in 1906. In front of 24 Brazil St. the crew found a sewer manhole filled with wastewater, indicating that something in the 6-inch mainline was causing it to back up.

City personnel inserted a jet hose into the 6-inch sewer line to clean the pipe. About 34 feet upstream they encountered an obstruction which prohibited the jet hose from proceeding. In an attempt to clear the obstruction, the flow and pressure from the jet hose was increased, “which is typical protocol for such an operation,” Weston & Sampson’s review stated.

“Shortly thereafter, the residents of 9 Brazil St. and 12 Brazil St. reported their toilets and plumbing overflowing and wastewater pouring into their homes. The City immediately ceased all operations,” the review continued, adding that 13 Brazil and 18 Brazil Street were also impacted. Two of the properties are rentals, and two others are owner-occupied.

Cleanup costs are not yet known, but will be in the tens of thousands of dollars. According to reports, cockroaches have appeared in at least one of the homes and residents aren’t happy with answers they received from the city, in particular from the Health Department under the direction of Ruth Clay, about the habitability of their living spaces.

The Weston & Sampson review concluded that the problem on Brazil Street was probably a combination of factors, including:

• Roots and debris obstruction which created a surcharged condition within pipes in the system;

• Significant presence of grease in the 6-inch sewer main and individual sewer service connections;

• Poor condition of the individual sewer service connections which likely allowed large amounts of liquid sewage and waste to continuously accumulate over time in the sewer service connections.

Weston & Sampson found that after the blockage was clear, wastewater “most likely flowed downstream at a velocity greater than 6 mph, which may have caused wastewaer to be forced back up the service connections and into the homes. According to City record drawings, the existing 6-inch sewer pipe upstream of the incident was installed with a slope of over 11 percent. Based on this slope, the velocity of the wastewater in this pipe while flowing full would be approximately 9 feet per second or approximately 6 miles per hour. When the City cleared the obstruction, it is likely that the wastewater flowed downstream at even higher velocities du to the buildup of pressure in the sewer behind the obstruction — possibly forcing wastewater back up the service connections and into the homes.”

Weston & Sampson recommended the following:

• The remaining 6-inch vitrified clay sewer on Brazil Street should be inspected by camera.

• “At a minimum, the existing 6-inch (pipe) should be removed and replaced with 8-inch PVC sewer pipe in Brazil Street (between a couple of specific points).” This is about 280 feet worthy of sewer replacement work and would cost about $150,000.

• Depending on the results of the additional recommended (camera) inspection and due to the current size of the existing sewer in Brazil Street, removal and replacement of the existing sewer…should also be considered.

The mayor updated the public last Friday on the entire Brazil Street situation.

“On June 20, when our DPW crew was clearing a clog in a sewer line on Brazil Street, sewage was released into four houses. Sewer backups are not unusual, and the standard procedure is to instruct the residents to call professional cleaners and file a claim with our insurance company to cover the costs.

“This case was different: Because these homes had no cellars, the sewage went into the main living quarters. Therefore, we went beyond the standard procedure and made arrangements for the residents to stay in hotels. We also offered to pay the professional cleaners up front, rather than make the residents wait for reimbursement.

“The cleaners removed everything that could absorb the sewage, including rugs and parts of walls, and sanitized all hard surfaces. The Health Director visited each home to verify that work had been done. Her job is to ensure that the home meets the state’s basic standards for building and health codes (working water, sewer, toilet, and electricity; all surfaces that could absorb sewage have been removed; all hard surfaces have been sanitized). Once these criteria are met, she signs off that the that the home is safe to move back into, not that the home is fully repaired or renovated.

“Our Health Director (Ruth Clay) has over 30 years’ experience, has visited each of these houses several times, and has only officially declared one home livable. I trust her judgment. She is the person who makes that decision in every case, and I know she has a strong concern for public health. Under no circumstances would she allow a home to be declared habitable if there was any danger of contamination. So far, only one house has been declared habitable. We are working with the other residents to get them back into their houses as soon as possible, but there are many parties involved: Homeowners, renters, contractors, and both the residents’ and the city’s insurance.

“Once the situation is stabilized, it is up to the residents to handle the additional work and file claims for reimbursement from our insurance company. As municipal officials we have a duty to be responsible with our city’s resources. The city cannot accept full responsibility for restoration work on these homes until our insurance company makes a determination. And once the Health Director has cleared a home for re-occupancy, we cannot justify continuing to put the residents up in hotels at the city’s expense.

“We have done everything possible to speed up the claims process. We hired Weston & Sampson, an engineering firm, to determine the cause of the sewer release, and our insurance adjustor has been in contact with the residents’ insurance adjustors. Weston & Sampson has just issued its final report. My staff and I have been in continual communication with the residents to make sure they are clear about the next steps.

“Moving forward, we will continue working with our DPW staff to monitor and stay ahead of any problems. Our engineering staff has an ongoing capital improvement program for water and sewer upgrades throughout the city, and our work crews continue to perform preventative maintenance as well as repairs on our 100 year old sewer system. We will continue to support the Brazil Street residents, relying on the expertise of the Health Director, the engineers, and the insurance company, all of whom have designated professional roles to play in this situation,” the mayor wrote.