I-TEAM: Project hits snags in bringing sewer lines to Thomson families

Published: Oct. 10, 2022 at 6:58 PM EDT
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THOMSON, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - A project is within grasp to bring sewer lines to dozens of families in Thomson, dealing with raw sewage backups in their homes and yards for decades.

McDuffie County applied for grants and secured a good chunk of the funding for the $1.6 million project. The only problem is that was before the pandemic. Now, that same project costs $2.6 million.

It’s a real problem a lot of local governments are facing: Crucial projects, pushed back by the pandemic are now nearly impossible to accomplish due to soaring prices and labor shortages.

As our I-TEAM found, while the problem gets worse, the dollars needed to fix the problems, keep stacking higher.

The grass is always a little greener on Ridgeview Avenue and sometimes, a little taller, too.

But the brighter the blade, the farther away the kids have to stay.

That’s because we found human waste overflowing into yards and backing up into houses from septic lines.

Great for grass, but not so great for raising a family.

“You can’t sit on your porch. You can’t do nothing when it rains,” explains neighbor Waldo Massey.

His neighbor Butch Blount says it’s more than just ugly, it’s potentially dangerous.

“Kids are sickly around here. Really sickly. I don’t know if it’s from the sludge or not.”

“How are you going to cook with flies coming into your house,” asked another neighbor.

The ground in this part of Thomson doesn’t perk, which means the soil doesn’t absorb liquid.

The ground needs to perk for a septic system to work correctly. But these working-class neighborhoods on the outskirts of Thomson have been here for decades, without sewer lines, dealing with septic problems.

“Once the ground is saturated it has nowhere else to go, so it backs up into people’s houses,” adds Massey.

Today, a building permit wouldn’t be issued at all for these houses without sewer line access because the ground wouldn’t pass the perk tests. Forty or 50 years ago, those rules weren’t in place.

So, to keep sewage from backing up in their homes, families often do what they have to do, run drain lines outside.

“People got to live. Some of my neighbors run it in a ditch. I can’t fall out with them about that. Do you know what I’m saying? Because you got to have some relief. You can’t pump that’s $500-600 every three to four months.”

It’s a health hazard. So, before the pandemic, the city began the process of getting grant funding to help pay to tie in these two neighborhoods, 81 homes to the city sewer line.

Jason Smith is the county’s community development officer.

“So, with all of that, we were looking at about 1.6 million dollars with both neighborhoods.”

The pandemic put everything on pause, and now, the city is on its last extension to use the money from the grant or lose it.

“I don’t understand this, we have the money. We don’t have the money. We got the money again. So, let’s start. Let’s start. Even if you don’t do but 10 houses, let’s start.”

The neighbors are at odds with the county because they say they’ve been asking for this since the 90′s.

And they’re tired of the can getting kicked down the road. The city says the neighbors formally brought it to their attention in 2018, and government projects aren’t a sprint they’re a marathon. But either way, the sewer lines, are not there yet.

“Had COVID and the economy not hit, we’d be $1.6 million, and we’d be on our way,” adds Smith.

Now the price tag to do the project is more than $2.6 million. Our I-TEAM found those price hikes are crippling infrastructure projects here at home and around the country.

We found a 38 percent price increase in cement and concrete from pre-pandemic to now.

Iron pipes and fittings are needed for a project like this, up nearly 40 percent.

For road and highway projects, tar and asphalt are up nearly 110 percent.

For McDuffie County, they say this project is just one example.

Nearly “every long-term project they have is being affected” and beyond that, “department budgets are being affected by the increased cost of everything from gas to parts.”

So now, they’re having to make tough decisions, like going ahead and beginning this project with only half of the funding.

“The promises we’ve made to some of these people are we’re going to get you a sewer, but not right now, but your neighbors are getting sewer. It’s literally one street over in some cases.”

For families, desperate for their kids, to be able to play in the yard. Paying hundreds of dollars on their own tight budgets to pump their septic tanks…it’s a tough pill to swallow.

The day our I-TEAM sat down with the county, the wheels started turning. The attorney filed the paperwork to condemn the remaining properties they couldn’t get permission to dig on.

At this point, they’re likely going to at least start one neighborhood and at least complete half of the project.

But the longer they wait, they face the possibility of prices continuing to climb.