After Recent Flooding, a Putrid Problem Persists for Some Centralians

Residents Voice Frustration After Sewage Pours Into Neighborhood

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Since 2002, James Miller has called Hemlock Street his home.

It has been a little slice of heaven ever since for the 64-year-old Centralia resident and his wife. China Creek hums nearby in the winter. In the springtime, stray deer and wildlife meander into his backyard.

“It’s just calm and peaceful,” Miller said, “and I bought this house because of the shop out here.”

But during flood seasons, he and his neighbors have a problem — a stinky, repulsive one, at that.

About a week and a half ago — as China Creek saw its worst flooding in more than a decade — a sewer line in the 520 block of Hemlock Street overtopped its manhole, spilling out into the roadway and draining into the nearby creek.

Raw sewage, stormwater, toilet paper, oil and, yes, even condoms were seen overtopping the manhole for about a week, residents told The Chronicle.

“I think it was spewing for five, six days. Yesterday morning was when it stopped,” said Hemlock resident Derrick Paul, 49, on Friday afternoon. “It was all over the street here.”

Miller said he noticed a “blue sheen” on the water entering into China Creek as the floodwaters began to recede. For many days, sewage lined most of the roadway where Hemlock meets the creek.

Early Friday — about a week after it first began overtopping — workers with the City of Centralia came out to pump the remaining liquid and sprinkle a garden lime compound.

Workers had set up sandwich signs and cones to deter anyone from walking in the area. The stench had subsided considerably by then, residents said.

“If that’s not pollution, I don’t know what is,” said Miller, noting this was the worst overflow he’s seen since purchasing his house.

Kim Ashmore, the city’s public works director, said Monday the city was still busy assessing how many gallons of sewage overflow likely occurred in the City of Centralia following the Jan. 6 flood.

There are about 10 or so sanitary sewer overflows that likely occurred during this most recent flood event, Ashmore said, with the Hemlock location being among the lowest spots on the entire city’s sewer system.

“When the water backs up, that’s the first place for it to come back out, basically,” he said.

That adds up. Since 2008, when Miller bought his house at the end of Hemlock after moving across the street, he’s counted at least three other similar incidents. It happens, he said, “basically everytime it snows really bad” and there’s a large rain event.

But Ashmore said the overflowing events they see aren’t anything new or unique.

“It happens. Every city, every county and treatment plant experiences this,” Ashmore said. “We’re not unique. We’re not the only ones that are overflowing out of their system.”

During the Jan. 6 flood event, more than 10 million gallons a day were being pumped to the sewer plant, Ashmore said, which is about twice as much as what the 2004-era plant is rated to receive on any given day. Some residents at Hemlock, due in part to this, had problems flushing their toilets during certains times of the day.

Sewer overflow events during flooding can leak anywhere from about 1 to 2 gallons per minute, Ashmore said, though that rate can fluctuate drastically depending on variables with flow and flooding. It’s no stretch to imagine possibly thousands of gallons of sewage alone leaked from the Hemlock manhole into this single section of creek during this last event.

Ashmore said the city will be required to report overflow estimates at each location to the Washington state Department of Ecology and the state Department of Health.

Seth Richards’ yard was the hardest hit on Hemlock. The last three years, he, his two children and wife have rented a house on the street.

For about a week, Richards couldn’t let his 3-year-old son out to play as city sewage had inundated their yard and covered his play toys. Richards said the city also hasn’t given them guidance on when their yard may be habitable again.

“Honestly, my family hasn’t been feeling well this week. Since we got back (from the flood), we all haven’t been feeling well,” said Richards, 35.

Miller and his neighbors are lobbying the city for a fix to this regular overtopping. Last Tuesday, Miller took to the Centralia City Council meeting to voice his concerns, and he said the city should utilize state and federal infrastructure dollars to improve its systems. But a solution may not be feasible.

Ashmore told The Chronicle that while their sewer treatment facility is nearing the end of its useful life, they’re working diligently to invest in infrastructure and bring about regularly phased improvements to sewer pipes and infrastructure. The last two summers, he said, the city invested about $1 million each to fix leaky sewer pipes.

More data on sewage overflow from the Jan. 6 China Creek flooding is expected this week.