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Big mess: Back-up leaves church praying for solution

Thursday, January 4, 2007

(Photo)
Edie Phillips inspects water damage and bloated diapers in the church's basement.
The weathered pews stood empty at Family of God Church in Roachdale Tuesday afternoon.

Sounds of gospel music and old-fashioned preaching were replaced by the smell of sewage that seemed to fill every corner of the little church on North Walnut Street.

In the middle of the sanctuary stood the preacher's wife, a look of exhaustion on her face and trepidation in her voice.

"We just need a break," Edie Phillips said.

Tears began to run down her cheeks as she tried to come to terms with a sewage backup that flooded the church's basement during the New Year's Day weekend. It is a sight becoming all too familiar for Edie and her husband Larry, who serves as pastor of the congregation of 30 or so members.

In March of 2005, sewer water backed up into the basement through a floor drain and accumulated to nearly a foot on the basement floor.

The contamination was so bad that officials with the Putnam County Health Department, who identified the presence of fecal bacteria, condemned the building and church members were forced to conduct services elsewhere for about three months while the cleanup effort took place.

Undeterred, church members pulled together and removed all the ruined drywall and bleached the studs in the walls and the concrete floor to the health department's satisfaction. They could not afford to pay the estimated $40,000 to have a professional contractor do the work.

"Everything that was there we had to haul off," Larry said.

In December of 2005 a similar backup occurred at the church, and with similar results.

Then during the recent New Year's Day weekend, a third backup occurred and several inches of water from the town's sewage system found its way into the church's basement yet again. Now frustrated church members don't know what to do.

"It was really dirty," Edie said of the water that had mostly receded by Tuesday afternoon. "You could smell it even before you got inside the building."

After making her way down to the darkened basement, she gingerly stepped over puddles of brown, smelly water and charted a path around waterlogged packages of Depends undergarments and rotting food.

"If we don't fix this problem ..." Edie said, then paused. "We can't put another dime in it."

She said the church's own insurance company has denied their claim because they say it's flood damage and that they are not covered. She said the church cannot get flood insurance because they are not in a flood-prone area.

Larry said the church has tried repeatedly since the first backup to get the town to investigate the problem or take some responsibility, but so far the church has not been satisfied with the results.

The town has come and flushed out the manholes when the backups have occurred, but church members want more.

"If we don't get compensated, we don't have a choice but to seek legal action," Edie said.

This is not the first time the church has threatened a lawsuit. In May of 2005, the church sent the town a torte claim notice, indicating they were considering a lawsuit, but according to them got no response from the town.

"They did not even acknowledge it," Edie said.

The town's attorney Tom Casey told the BannerGraphic Wednesday that he isn't allowed to say much because the church has threatened in the past to file a lawsuit.

"Because that's pending litigation, my comment right now would be that we've turned it over to our insurance company," Casey said.

But it seems church members are not the only ones pointing fingers at the town.

The BannerGraphic obtained a letter from the Indiana Department of Environmental Manage-ment, sent to the town and the church on May 11, 2005, a little less than two months after the first sewage backup.

In it, IDEM official Rex Counterman, who inspected the Roachdale wastewater plant following the first backup, placed partial blame on the town's sewage department for the incident.

The letter states: "A backup of sewage occurred on March 6, 2005 in the Family of God Church basement. This backup of sewage can be partially attributed to the lack of maintenance of the town's collection system."

Counterman told the BannerGraphic this week that he determined the town had, in fact, failed to comply with IDEM's regulation for a municipality to flush out its sewage system on a regular basis, which presumably led to the backup in the church basement.

"I think they were doing it on an as needed basis and it needs to be cleaned on a regular basis," Counterman said. "We were asking them to better maintain their collection system."

The pastor and his wife say the town has declined responsibility, in part, because of the basement drain where the sewage leaked the first time. They said the town argued that the drain, which is located near the floor next to a sink, is illegal and therefore they are not responsible for the damages.

Phillips, on the other hand, say that a licensed plumber certified the drain to be legal.

The BannerGraphic received a copy of a second letter -- this one signed by Justin Dorsey Plumbing Company President Justin Dorsey and sent to the church on Sept. 8, 2005. Dorsey states in the letter that the drain did "meet the guidelines set forth in the Uniform Plumbing Code."

Edie said she forwarded this letter to the town clerk's office but feels like it did not do any good.

"They keep saying they're waiting to hear back from their insurance company," she said.

The town's attorney said he could not personally make any determinations about the drain and that it would be for the insurance company to decide.

"As far as I know, that's all been turned over to the insurance company," Casey said.

Counterman said he has not actually been inside the church, so he could not make any judgments concerning the drain either. However, he said the drain should have some type of check valve in place to prevent sewage from coming back through the drain and flooding the basement.

Regardless, the couple say they thought they had taken care of the problem when they cemented the drain shut prior to this most recent backup.

"The key factor now is that the drain has been sealed up," Larry said. "(The sewage) was actually coming right in the walls this time."

Counterman seemed very concerned by this after the BannerGraphic spoke with him on Wednesday.

"I would have no idea why it would be coming through the walls," he said.

But he declined to speculate any further without seeing the drain for himself.

"It's very hard to figure out who caused it or who's at fault," Counterman said of the sewage backup.

Steve Walters, public health coordinator for the Putnam County Health Department, said he was not aware of the situation when the BannerGraphic contacted him on Wednesday afternoon. He was aware of the March 2005 incident.

Edie still holds onto the sign that the health department placed on the front door of the church in 2005.

"It's my keepsake," she said.

Meanwhile church members will hold Sunday services at the Bainbridge Community Center until further notice. They have also had to put the brakes on the food pantry they were planning to open for the needy residents of their community.

Edie showed the BannerGraphic several refrigerators and a large freezer in the basement that were full of meat and other items. The water kicked the power off at some point during the weekend and the food spoiled.

"We have $300 worth of meat that is completely ruined now," Edie said.

Also, church members had collected a small room full of adult diapers and women's hygiene products that were soaked with sewage and scattered throughout the basement.

"Until they take care of the problem, our basement is hopeless," Edie said.

Larry said he and several church members plan to attend the town's next council meeting in hopes of getting some long-awaited answers.

"I just think that until they're held accountable, we're not going to see a change here," he said. "We don't lose confidence or faith that we will someday be able to use our basement again."

Staff Writer Matt Fosheim, a DePauw University Winter Term intern, contributed to this report.



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