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City, resident tangle over discharge destination
by: Erica Ryberg, RUNNING WATER – The sound of running water echoes through the concrete basement of St. Helens engineer Steve Topaz. On a recent rainy day, he pumped 35,000 gallons of water that he said used to soak into the recently sealed sewer system.

St. Helens has used $4 million in stimulus dollars to comply with an Oregon Department of Environmental Quality mandate to banish the storm water that's been making its way into its sewer system, but that water still has to go somewhere.

Ideally, that somewhere is into the storm water system, but St. Helens resident, Steve Topaz said in his case it's now going into his basement.

Topaz, who lives and does medical engineering work in a commercial building at 4th and St. Helens streets, said that after the city sealed the sewer pipes behind his house last June the amount of water his sump pump puts into the sewer system during storms has jumped ten-fold.

The cross streets at his residence date back to 1889 and, like much of St. Helens, his house sits on impermeable basalt.

On a rainy day last week, he pumped 35,000 gallons and that, he said, is a problem.

Storm water a no-no

Chad Olsen, the city administrator, agrees there's a problem, but it's not with the amount of water Topaz is pumping. It's where he's putting it.

'We are requiring all residents to disconnect their downspouts and stop any mingling of storm water and sanitary sewer water,' he said. The concern, Olsen said, is that if the sewer system gets overloaded during storms, surges can send contaminated water into the environment.

The city backed up its order by filing a lawsuit against Topaz in municipal court which the city had dropped after Topaz had filed for permits to move his pumping system so that collected water would discharge into the storm water system.

To help the process along, the city put in a perforated pipe to soak up storm water, but when it was first installed, the slope of the pipe was in the wrong direction to drain Topaz's property.

City contractors fixed the error, but because the pipe rests above the now-sealed sewer line, it is two-and-a-half feet above the level of Topaz's basement, which means water in the basement can't drain into the system the city has provided.

Topaz said the water that lands on his asphalt yard isn't near the tens of thousands of gallons he's pumping out of his basement.

The extra water comes from several factors that have risen - literally - over the years. Repaving projects that lay new asphalt over old have raised the level of 4th Street by a foot, meaning that water collects into standing puddles on the side of the road and eventually finds its way into the fractures and troughs in the basalt. And, before the sewer sealing project, into the sewer pipes that ran through the solid basalt. With that outlet gone, the lowest point at this already low geographical point of St. Helens is Topaz's broad commercial basement.

A biological hazard?

Topaz said he's spent about $20,000 in legal fees since last June to coax the city into getting the extra water out of his basement. In a more recent turn, he's now working with his attorney to address what he said are environmental quality issues.

Earlier this month, he alerted DEQ to what he said were high levels of E. coli, a bacterium associated with sewer water, in the water that covers his basement floor. The acceptable amount of E. coli in storm water, said Greg Geist, manager of DEQ's source control for the northwest part of the state, is 126 colony forming units per 100 milliliters of water.

Topaz said the tests he's run have put the number of colony forming units in the millions, but despite DEQ's requests, Topaz said his attorney told him not to send the results of his E. coli testing to DEQ.

It's unclear where the E. coli is coming from, but Topaz said he's reluctant to put contaminated water into the storm water system.

'If it turns out the water is contaminated, then at that point it becomes a water quality issue and DEQ would be interested in how the city would convey that water either to their sanitary sewer or to the storm water system,' Geist said. But if the water isn't contaminated, then he said he agrees with Olsen's position.

'The idea of putting storm water through a treatment plant is just bad policy,' Geist said.

Topaz said that for him to do otherwise would require a huge amount of work to dig a ditch around the perimeter of his building and to install another sump pump. In his view, that's the city's responsibility.

'They've got to put a drain at the level of my basement to get rid of the storm water,' he said.

But Olsen said that the only thing left to be done is to have Topaz do his part to get the water he pumps out of his basement into storm water rather than sewer collection.

'Unless there's some development that I'm unaware of and can't foresee at this point, the project's completed and we're moving on,' Olsen said.

Olsen said the city will spend about $10 million to complete the project. Topaz said he wishes that the city had planned better when it was reaching for stimulus dollars to address the project's aftereffects.

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