WASHINGTON (CN) – Six months after attempts to repair an underground water main running beneath their homes came to a literal head, drowning their properties in raw sewage, 21 minority homeowners and tenants brought a federal complaint against the D.C. water authority.
Lead plaintiff Marquetta Miller and her neighbors say the filthy deluge began at approximately 2 p.m. on Nov. 18, 2016.
“In less than a half hour, the basement of each of these homes held two to three feet of standing, raw sewage,” the complaint states, filed Monday with a federal judge in Washington. “The stench was overwhelming and nauseating; the sight, terrifying.”
Miller says her home was the first hit when the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority’s “experiment on Delafield Place failed.”
“Within minutes,” the 45-page complaint continues, “WASA’s raw sewage began to erupt out of toilets affixed to the basement floor in plaintiffs’ homes along Delafield Place, each home rocking and stressed at its foundations by the extreme force of the flow.”
WASA, short for the Water and Sewage Authority, acknowledged responsibility for the mess, but the 21 nonwhite, middle-class plaintiffs say poor management of the cleanup worsened the problem.
D.C. Water failed to supervise cleanup crews, did not conduct tests to assess the degree of contamination, did not test the viability of foundations and piping, and failed to even visit several affected homes, the residents claim.
The complaint also accuses D.C. Water employees of removing the plaintiffs’ belongings without permission while trespassing onto the their properties.
“Without seeking or securing plaintiffs’ informed consent on the scope of WASA’s work in various plaintiffs’ homes, WASA entered the homes and removed furniture, clothing, papers, personal belongings, and fixtures, including three feet of wall covering and basement flooring, without any regard to the value of any items removed,” the complaint states
In some cases, residents say that cleanup crews dumped contaminated items in yards. In other cases, workers hauled them away.
While removing their belongings, furthermore, the cleanup crews allegedly spread the mess beyond the basements.
“WASA’s workers spread fecal matter into the upstairs, in some homes carting dripping contaminated basement items through the first floor of the house,” the complaint says.
Residents say DC Water vanished after that with no explanation.
Some have not been able to return to their homes because of exposed asbestos, but those who did say they found missing wallboards and flooring, exposed wiring and piping, and “contaminated furniture sitting in a bacteria-laden, mold-forming heap.”
Juanita Reed, who lives on Delafield place with a son and minor granddaughter, says the sewage ruined all her clothing.
“Reed’s entire wardrobe, an extensive collection of women’s wear collected over a decade, is contaminated by WASA’s raw sewage and the asbestos fibers that WASA made friable in Reed’s home,” the complaint states.
November’s eruptions left each of the plaintiffs traumatized, according to the complaint.
“As after a burglary, their houses no longer feel like their homes,” it says. “Even the air is now suspect.”
The residents say that outdoor drains are now clogged, and the force of the sewer eruption caused passageways for rainwater and rodents to flood their homes.
Some of the residents allege that D.C. Water has undercut payments offered for damaged goods, which it will only disburse if the plaintiffs agree to release D.C. Water for all damages.
Alzata and Charles Ross claim D.C. Water is offering them half of the estimated $7,313 value of their losses.
D.C. Water offered to pay them $3,656.93 “if, and only if, the Rosses would release WASA in full for all damage that WASA had caused, not just personal property,” the complaint states.
D.C. Water did not respond to a request for comment about the lawsuit.
The 21 plaintiffs seek damages for civil-rights violations, negligence and trespass.
Their attorney, Mitchell Rotbert of Gaithersburg, Maryland, did not respond to an email seeking comment.