In December, Regent Square homeowner Rob Kennedy got a letter in the mail from the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority [PWSA]. “Dear customer,” it began, and notified Kennedy that his private sewer lateral was broken, a risk to public health and safety, and needed to be repaired.
That can’t be right, Kennedy thought. PWSA had sent him the same letter a year prior, and he had doled out $8,400 for repairs. The private sewer lateral he fixed connected to a line under Pansy Way that Kennedy assumed was public. But according to PWSA, the Pansy Way line is private and, therefore, the responsibility of Kennedy and three other homeowners.
Neither side has documentation of the Pansy Way line. Homeowners don’t have it on their deeds, and PWSA doesn’t have it on its maps. So whose is it?
The question will be considered in court this month, potentially shedding light on whether the city or property owners are responsible for unmapped lines under public throughways.
Pittsburgh began creating and mapping its public sewer system in the mid-1800s. Like most cities, PWSA only records public lines. Private laterals — the pipes that run from an individual building to the sewer main — and their connections are largely unmapped, meaning homeowners may not discover they share one until they’re halfway through repairs.
That was the case for a group of homeowners a few blocks from Pansy Way. Their 20-foot sinkhole received wide coverage because it blocked East End Avenue for months. For those homeowners, road traffic was just one of the myriad challenges they faced during their $209,000 ordeal.
The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission is considering a PWSA program proposal that would help low-income customers offset the cost of private sewer repairs. It’s a situation a growing number of homeowners may face as the city’s original infrastructure breaks down. Many pipes last about 100 years, meaning that sewer lines in older neighborhoods are at the end of their lifetimes.
Pansy Way’s unmapped pipe
Eric Gardner was the first Savannah Avenue homeowner to receive notice about sewer repairs.
The house had been in his family since 1967. Gardner said a sinkhole behind the property, at the intersection of Pansy Way and Guthrie Street, had existed since he began managing the house in 1985. Gardner hired a plumbing company to repair the connection between his private lateral and the line under Pansy Way, which he assumed was the main.
But PWSA said that line wasn’t on its map and, after a dye test, it determined that Gardner, Kennedy and another pair of homeowners were connected to the line and responsible for repairs. That’s when Gardner hit the brakes, completing his connection repair but holding off on the bigger repair under Pansy Way.
PWSA and the city’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure [DOMI] have sent the homeowners multiple notices that they must repair Pansy Way. The homeowners made a temporary fix, packing the roughly two-foot hole with rocks. In a complaint filed in February, DOMI said the homeowners violated a city code that prohibits residents from placing potentially harmful materials — the rocks, in this case — on the street. DOMI expects the homeowners to repair the road and will ask them to do so in a June 21 municipal court hearing.
A Pansy Way line failure may have caused or worsened the sinkhole. Kennedy believes the city may have made a clerical error in its sewer mapping. If the line isn’t theirs, the homeowners reasoned, then neither are the repair costs.
PWSA senior manager of public affairs Rebecca Zito said the agency has a “complete record” of sewer maps dating back to 1870. “There can always be discrepancies,” Zito said of the maps. “However, our sewer system is well documented.”
Zito said the agency proactively rehabilitates sewers, deciding which lines to prioritize based on televised inspection footage, complaints and calls for urgent repairs.
Currently, PWSA is rehabilitating sewers in Lincoln Lemington Belmar, Highland Park, Greenfield, Overbrook, West End, Squirrel Hill and Marshall Shadeland.
On its project map, PWSA posted plans to replace the sewer mains in Regent Square. If the line under Pansy Way was deemed public, it’d be included. But because PWSA maps don’t denote a Pansy Way pipe, it deems the line private by default.
The Savannah Avenue homeowners have been waiting, hoping they can prove that it’s not theirs. The neighbors expect that repairs would cost around $60,000, split three ways. But it’s a price they don’t think they should pay.
Robert Xides is a local attorney who worked with the East End Avenue homeowners and now represents the Savannah Avenue homeowners. On May 11, Xides sent a letter to PWSA, asking the agency to prove the line is private before asking homeowners to repair it. He also noted that, in the initial August 2021 letter PWSA sent to Kennedy, it said repairs were required on Kennedy’s “sewer lateral,” which connected to a “sewer main line.” Kennedy assumed that was the line under Pansy Way.
In response, PWSA reiterated its position that unless the homeowners had evidence proving otherwise, the line is private.
East End Avenue’s unmapped connection
Homeowners on East End Avenue, in Point Breeze, have told this story so many times, they complete each other’s sentences. On a rainy evening in May, Becky Johnson and her husband, Avi Schreiber, went back and forth, deciding who would tell it and at what length, ultimately tag-teaming to tell the whole thing.
“Everything that could go wrong,” said Schreiber, “did in fact go wrong.”
It started in July with sewage backup in their basement. The couple had PWSA camera their private sewer line and relay the information to their plumbing company. The company told the couple that their lateral cleanly connected to the main 20 feet underground. When the company couldn’t snake the line, they learned that they shared a sewer connection with their neighbor. The company thought the neighbors’ connection had failed, and that they could dig 12 feet to the private connection and repair it. Then the company started digging.
“They find this cave under the road,” Schreiber said.
“It was a void,” Johnson corrected him. “Let’s be clear.”
A void is empty space below an intact surface. Underneath the flat, paved asphalt of East End Avenue was a sinkhole waiting to happen.
Water causes sinkholes, but pinpointing the source is often difficult, according to Tom Batroney, past president of the Pittsburgh Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers. While sinkholes often occur naturally, human land-use practices can exacerbate their growth. Leaky pipes are one of many factors that can cause or widen sinkholes.
In addition to the void, the plumbing company discovered two new problems. First, the neighbors’ two-way connection stemmed from a four-way connection with two homes across the street. Second, the connection to the main was deeper than 20 feet, requiring bigger equipment, a new permit, a weeks-long delay and a change to a different plumbing company that typically only deals with municipalities.
With limited mapping of private laterals, and no mapping for the cluster of East End Avenue homes, owners didn’t know they all had a stake in the sinkhole until it was open and quickly eroding. Once they realized they shared a four-way connection, the homeowners worked together as a unit to make decisions.
The hole expanded for months as chunks of street and sidewalk collapsed into it. In August, some homeowners sealed off their basement with plastic wrap so their entire house wouldn’t smell like sewage. In September, a deer fell in. In October, a plumber stood guard as trick-or-treaters streamed past. In November, the homeowners worried they’d have to move out. In December, the neighbors toasted champagne and considered burning sage to celebrate being done with the ordeal. Johnson and Schreiber put the sinkhole on their Christmas card.
As much as the homeowners joke about it, they said the process was traumatic.
Joe Ramsey had been wound up so tightly about the sinkhole — worried a person would fall in, astounded by the costs — that five months out, he was “still de-stressing.” He’d had insurance, but it only covered repairs in his house. By the time he paid his share of the $209,000 bill, he had $500 left in his savings account.
Had they waited for the road to collapse of its own accord, the homeowners believe PWSA would have paid for repairs.
“The city’s thought was: Your leaky sewer pipes collapsed. That’s your fault, and that led to this void,” Johnson explained. “And in our minds, we said: Well, what if the void already existed and then it couldn’t support our sewer pipes?”
According to Zito, who declined to comment on the East End Avenue episode, PWSA conducts a dye test to determine responsibility when a sinkhole occurs. If the dye exits a sewer main, PWSA shoulders repairs. “If there is a sinkhole and PWSA is called, we will investigate and make any required repairs to the sewer main,” Zito said.
But for the East End Avenue homeowners, it was too late for a dye test; their connection had collapsed into the sinkhole, making it hard to determine what caused it.
When Sara Lindey learned that her lateral was part of the sinkhole, she was especially surprised. She had inspected her private sewer line three years before, believing she had done everything she could to maintain it. She sold her East End Avenue property to cover her part of the sinkhole repairs.
“I would hate for people to leave the city because they’re scared of the infrastructure problems,” Lindey said. “I love Pittsburgh and would like our city to be a vital livable city. But these surprise bills are enough to drive anyone away.”
As Pittsburgh’s infrastructure ages, homeowners may find themselves repairing sewers they didn’t realize were theirs. The East End Avenue homeowners offered tips to homeowners in older neighborhoods, in the hopes that their situation stays unusual.
- When buying a home, check the home’s dye test and/or video inspection results so you know how deep your lateral’s connection is and the other lines to which it connects. The city requires homeowners to complete a dye test before selling their property. Pittsburgh plumbers typically charge between $165 and $275 for the test.
- Know that, in the City of Pittsburgh, you are responsible for your lateral all the way to its connection to the public line, which is often beneath a public road.
- Ask your homeowners insurance policy for external sewer line coverage. If the cap is $10,000, consider asking to have it increased to as much as $30,000.
- Advocate for your local representatives to back a public group insurance policy, which would allow some of the risk to be shared among a large group of homeowners.
Zito recommended that homeowners get applicable insurance and offered tips for all Pittsburgh residents who want to proactively maintain their sewer laterals. Among its recommendations:
- Hire a plumber to inspect your lateral every few years to gauge its condition.
- Avoid pouring fats and oils down your drain.
- Do not use your toilet as a trashcan: Only flush toilet paper and human waste.
- Do not plant anything with extensive roots over your lateral.
- If you plan to dig or expect construction over your lateral, ask PA One Call to verify the location and protect your lateral.
Sophia Levin, a student at Carnegie Mellon University, is a freelance journalist and former PublicSource intern. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story was fact-checked by Elizabeth Szeto.
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However, only .01% of the people who read our stories contribute to our work financially. Our newsroom depends on the generosity of readers like yourself to make our high-quality local journalism possible, and the costs of the resources it takes to produce it have been rising, so each member means a lot to us.
Your donation to our nonprofit newsroom helps ensure everyone in Allegheny County can stay up-to-date about decisions and events that affect them. Please make your gift of support now.