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Sewage: The First-Hand Story

October 22, 2006
By HELEN UBINAS, Courant Staff Writer

The MDC wants you to give them $1.6 billion dollars.

Kim Ramos wants them to give her about 10 grand.

And considering the nightmare she and her West Hartford neighbors have been through this past year, I'm a lot more inclined to vote for Ramos' getting that check than I am for the MDC to get the funds for a sewage upgrade project.

I had three feet of sewage in my backyard.

...raw sewage in my cellar!

The smell...

The rats!

I have a staph infection now.

My mother has problems with her liver and kidney.

There's no way I'll ever be able to sell my house.

At times, it was hard to follow Ramos and her neighbor Linda Gilnite, who was listening in on the other line. They were speaking over one another, in bursts so fast that it was almost impossible to keep their stories straight.

But who can blame them? If a year after my house flooded with raw sewage I was still waiting for the organization charged with dealing with the situation to come through, I might sound a little desperate too.

And if that organization then turned around and asked me to turn out at the voting booth in November to support a long-overdue sewer system upgrade, I might be just as inclined as they are to tell them where to get off.

A few minutes after that phone call with Gilnite and Ramos, I took a ride over to West Hartford to speak to the women in person. Even if I wasn't checking for house numbers, it would have been hard to miss Ramos' Randal Avenue home.

There were signs everywhere; seven on the lawn, two on the bay windows. "Where's the MDC?" "Vote No Nov. 7th." "No $ MDC." "Raw Sewage Oct. 2005 No testing done yet."

They started out as homemade signs, the women told me - just a way for the half-dozen or so residents whose basements were filled with sewage-tainted wastewater during heavy storms one year ago to express their frustrations with the MDC.

The MDC put some residents up at hotels while they cleaned up. They bought Gilnite a new furnace. They put rat traps and lime around the yards. But one month turned into three turned into six and here they are a year later with nothing to show for their ordeal besides low-ball settlement offers from the MDC - and better signs.

At Gilnite's Elmfield Street home, the water rose so high it tipped her tank of heating oil, combining with the sewage to create a toxic mix. Though she got estimates between $5,000 and $10,000 for testing alone, she was offered about $3,000.

"That's not even a year's worth of taxes in this town," she said. "This whole thing is just insane. Inhumane."

I'm no public relations expert. But after listening to residents' horror stories - among them tales of rashes, ringworm and a peculiar cleanup man who traipsed through one family's living room after working in the sludge to rest on the couch and play a guitar - this whole mess struck me as one big PR nightmare. And it could have been avoided had the MDC taken responsibility for the consequences of its own ineptitude in not upgrading the system years ago.

As angry as the residents are, even they concede the sewer system needs to be overhauled. How could they not? Every time it rains, Gilnite fears another backup. And she understands that if the referendum doesn't pass, the federal government will step in to do the job itself, which will almost certainly cost more.

Better that, she says, than putting a $1.6 billion project in the hands of a bunch who can't even clean up her block.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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