Bamboozled: One family’s lengthy dry spell

BB brandingTree roots can be a big problem for underground pipes in Mary Doherty’s Westfield neighborhood.

To protect her home, Doherty, a customer of American Water Resources, purchased the company’s “Sewer Line Unlimited Protection Plan.”

She first purchased the sewer plan in 2012, and in 2013, she added a water line protection plan. Together, the plans cost $212 a year.

“Many of my neighbors had experienced this problem over the years and I thought it would be wise to purchase because the cost of fixing this issue is in the thousands, which would be a hardship on my family,” Doherty said.

But after two sewer leaks, lost days of work, hours on the phone and nearly two weeks without being able to use water in the home, Doherty said AWR isn’t honoring the protection plan.

The first sewage backup into her basement came in February. It wasn’t a huge spread of sludge and none of her property was damaged, but the pipes weren’t operational.

6214“We removed the toilet to find that roots had grown all the way up to the opening of the toilet,” she said.

She said she called AWR on Feb. 12. The company sent a plumber, and he tried to snake the line.

“It broke their equipment,” Doherty said. “The technician told me that he did not have the equipment to take care of this problem and that he would have to report to his boss and that I would hear from them.”

Several days later, there was no word, so Doherty called the plumber. He said he was still waiting to hear back from AWR.

For the next several weeks, Doherty said, she’d call here and there, but there were no answers.

Finally in late March or early April — Doherty wasn’t sure of the date — a new plumbing company was dispatched by AWR.

Doherty said they again snaked the line, cutting through and removing roots. The plumber hoped that would do the trick, but no such luck.

“They came out on six other occasions,” Doherty said. “Some days they came to snake, other days to jet out the system and some to camera the line. I have a job that pays hourly and I was taking off each time they had to come out.”

The plumber said roots were the problem and they needed to determine if there was a break in the line, Doherty said. Then the plumber showed Doherty a video of the line, and at the 105-foot mark, the camera went black. The plumber said he wasn’t sure what it was, she said.

Then the weekend of May 18, more sewage leaked into Doherty’s basement, this time damaging a rug and a loveseat.

She called AWR, and they sent the plumber back on May 19.

“They said that the line would have to be replaced at the 105-foot mark, which is clear across the street from my house but still my responsibility and not the town’s,” she said. “They needed all utility companies to come out to mark their lines for safety reasons. AWR assured me that it would only take a day or so.”

Doherty said she was told by both AWR and the plumber not to use the water or toilets in the home until the problem was resolved.

Four days later, Doherty said she was told the repairs would not be covered by the protection plan.

“AWR denied my claim stating that I had two problems — the tree roots and a ‘belly’ in the line, meaning that there is a dip that is not covered under my policy,” Doherty said.

She said she asked for a copy of the videos and the reports from the plumber, but AWR wouldn’t hand them over. She complained to a local congressman and the Board of Public Utilities. She also called in two other plumbers and received estimates as high as $11,000.

“One has looked at the video and said … he does not think it’s a belly in the line as AWR has said, but he believes that there is a root or something blocking the line at 105 feet,” she said. “He does recommend replacing the line from the curb to the town sewer.”

But without coverage from the protection plan, Doherty didn’t have the money. She said she feared she’d have to hire an attorney.

“That may cost me as much as the sewer line,” she said. “I’ve never looked so forward to doing dishes and laundry.”


Doherty and her family headed to a friend’s home for the Memorial Day weekend — they couldn’t take the lack of running water for much longer — while we reviewed the language of the protection plan.

On Tuesday, we asked AWR to explain where in the protection plan it said Doherty’s problems were not covered. There is a long list of exclusions, but bellies don’t appear to make the list.

An AWR rep said they’d take a look.

Later that day, Doherty received a call from AWR, which said it would replace the line from the curb to the main. But the next day, the plumber told her something different.

“The plumbing company told me that they were just to replace the spot at 105 feet, which is the smaller job,” she said. “Both private plumbers had told me that that was not the proper way to handle the job and that I would have the same problem again in a year or two and would have to open the sidewalk and get permits and close the road again.”

This was Day 10 without water in the Doherty home.

Then AWR emailed us an update.

The spokeswoman said repairs to bellied sewer lines are not covered under the protection plan, but “American Water Resources has decided to repair the customer’s sewer line due to the unusual circumstances in this case.”

We asked what the “unusual circumstances” were.

“When the plumbing contractor investigated the clog on Ms. Doherty’s sewer line, the root intrusion was so severe that the contractor believed it was the sole cause of her sewer line clog, the rep said. “Unfortunately, the contractor did not identify the belly until the fourth visit.”

She said the repair is scheduled for early this week because they had to wait for the utility mark-outs to be completed.

But then more confusion the next day. Doherty spoke to AWR, which said it was sending yet another plumber to assess the line because the contractor it was going to use couldn’t make the fix until Wednesday. That would be Day 17 without water.

And then, Doherty said, exactly what work would be done was in question.

“What they are assessing is whether they are fixing the line at the 105 mark or from curb to main, which I was told originally by AWR, but then she said she may have misspoke,” Doherty said. “Curb to main is what was recommended by their plumber and my two plumbers.”

Ultimately, that’s what the latest plumber reported to AWR.

“We have determined the right fix for this would be to fix it from the curb to the main,” the spokeswoman said. “We want to do what right. It’s in everybody’s best interest. We don’t want to aggravate the customer and we don’t want to have to come back.”

She said the contractor would start the job that day — Friday, which was Day 12 without water — and try to restore Doherty’s service. She noted the entire job would probably take longer, but at least, they hoped, Doherty could use the water that day.

We called Doherty to give her the good news, but she had a different tale to tell. She said the plumbers flushed the line again and said they wouldn’t be replacing anything.

So once again we called AWR, which said perhaps there was confusion in the plumber’s conversation with Doherty, but the whole line would be replaced, starting later that day.


We also asked about where in the protection plan it said bellies weren’t covered.
“We don’t specifically say bellies,” the spokeswoman said. “Bellies is not on the list. It’s a list of examples that’s not meant to be all-inclusive.”


In the meantime, the plumbers flushed the line and Doherty was told to use her water.
“I’ve had dishes in my dishwasher since this happened,” she said. “I’m going to run that now but we won’t know if it will leak until I start flushing toilets and using the water.”

She also said the plumbers were reinstalling the basement toilet that had been off since February, and she’s happy that things are getting back to normal.

“If you have a protection plan, they should hold up their end,” she said. “The claim was denied. I would have had to go to litigation if it wasn’t for you, and that’s not me.”

We’re just glad to see a happy, sludge-free ending.