Fonda woman battles village over sinkholes, sewer lines

By JAIME STUDD

Recorder News Staff

FONDA — It began nearly eight months ago as a small hole and a simple request.

On Tuesday, Antonietta D’Alfonsi was struggling to understand just how what appeared to be a fairly straightforward street repair had snowballed into the destruction of the entire road, sewage and drainage issues, two holes in the earth nearly large enough to swallow a small child and what is turning out to be protracted fight with the village of Fonda to address the problem.

D’Alfonsi’s repeated e-mails to village and state officials tell the story.

To the Fonda Department of Public Works, July 3, 2012:

“In front of 3 Digiorgi Lane there is a sinkhole. It was filled at least a couple of years ago and it has reappeared. If you could please fill it before someone steps into the hole in the dark, it would be appreciated,” D’Alfonsi wrote.

That, and several subsequent e-mails penned to the DPW and Fonda Mayor Bill Peeler in the following weeks, D’Alfonsi said, went mostly unanswered, save a quick repair to the initial hole in question accompanied by a promise to return to investigate the underlying cause of the problem.

“They filled it with tar,” D’Alfonsi said. “The tar sunk.”

In the meantime, D’Alfonsi said, the issue compounded. The hole grew bigger, as did a second hole surrounding a village drain adjacent to the house, and the air around her home became increasingly difficult to stomach.

To the Fonda DPW, Peeler and Fonda Fire Chief Donald Wagoner, dated Aug. 16:

“This is meant for the water dept...[you] told me you were doing a quick fix on the street and then coming back the next week to see why there is no bottom to the street and it has a hole. You did not come back,” D’Alfonsi wrote. “When I called you again, you said you did not smell the odor everyone else here smells. I asked what you were going to do about the holes that are opening up along my house because of drain...I don’t like the plywood the village laid over the drain hole years ago. Why is it so difficult to see you?”

That e-mail did evoke a response, but not the one D’Alfonsi had hoped for. She was cited for violating a village ordinance prohibiting overgrown vegetation, a citation she believes she was “singled out” for.

A visit to the Fonda Village Board in September, D’Alfonsi said, also produced no results.

Unsure of where else to turn, D’Alfonsi contacted the Department of Environmental Conservation.

“Who do you go to when your DPW and your Mayor doesn’t listen to you?” D’Alfonsi asked.

After consulting with Fonda Superintendent of Public Works Chris Weaver, the DEC issued a letter to Antonietta saying Weaver had investigated the sinkhole and the drain issues.

“The camera investigation confirmed that the sinkhole was caused by a broken storm sewer pipe, which the village has pledged to repair,” Region 4 Director Gene Kelly wrote in an Aug. 29 letter. “Regarding the drain along your house, Mr. Weaver said he found that the foundation of the storm drainage pipe along the property is crumbling, causing the issues you have described. The village plans to fix that problem by re-pouring the foundation of the drainage pipe.”

Tuesday, DEC Region 4 Public Information Officer Rick Georgeson said the DEC initially believed the problem to be that of drainage, not one related to the sewer system.

“It's important to note the difference between a sanitary sewer (which carries sewage) and a storm sewer (which carries stormwater runoff),” Georgeson wrote in an e-mail on Monday.

Weaver’s investigation, however, revealed it to be a much bigger problem.

The appearance of the sinkholes, Weaver said, led village crews to discover that the sewer line coming from D’Alfonsi’s residence had at some point been improperly connected to the village storm drains.

The formation of the sinkhole revealed what is, in essence, an open sewer.

Weaver said village officials spent some time determining how best to address the issue and in an affordable manner.

“By the time we got together and got a contractor in there to see what the prices were going to be, it got to be late in the year and it was quite a bit of money for the contractor to do it, so then we had to rethink our plan,” Weaver said.

For D’Alfonsi, the wait was excruciating.

“Little by little, it just kept getting bigger and bigger,” D’Alfonsi said.

Finally, right before Christmas village DPW crews, with some help from their colleagues at the county, arrived on Digiorgi Lane.

“We started digging it,” Weaver said. “We got the manhole all set. We got a couple lengths of pipe in... then the weather turned on us and then we were kind of stuck.”

Again, D’Alfonsi waited and she did so for more than a month, hoping that the crude pieces of plywood, orange cones and sheets of metal used by crews to simply cover the hole would result in injuries.

By the beginning of February, the problem had made its way into her home.

To the DEC, dated Feb. 4:

“On Dec. 22nd or 23rd, they came and dug up the street, knowing there was going to be a snow storm. The street collapsed some this weekend and it caused my sewage to back up into my house. What a mess. I called them and they came and dug out the hole and said they could not guarantee this would not happen again. ...They said they cannot work in the winter. Why come and dig this up if you know you are going to leave a big nuisance to the people who live on this street? Is it safe for the residents and visitors? How do I know a child won’t be getting to close and get hurt? I see construction in the winter. Why can’t they fix it?”

It was that notice, Georgeson said, that brought the issue to the DEC’s attention once again, and how they learned the issue was far more extensive then they had previously thought.

On Feb. 8, the village of Fonda was issued a notice of violation for un-permitted discharge.

“Upon speaking with Mr. Weaver, it was learned that an open sanitary sewer was located at the bottom of the hole, and that the sanitary sewer on this half of the street was connected to the storm sewer,” Environmental Program Specialist Maria King Isaacson wrote in the Feb. 8 violation notice. “The sewer has been open, other than a metal plate partly covering the hole in the street since August.”

When it rains, D’Alfonsi said, the sediment from the now torn up road flows into the open hole, backing sewage up into her home.

The village was encouraged to address the issue on an “expeditious schedule.”

To the Fonda DPW and Peeler, dated Feb. 25:

“The road caved in some more on the weekend. I hope nobody gets seriously hurt here because it is taking you too long to fix the road and sewer. Also, the drain on the side of my house gets bigger holes as time keeps passing by. When will the work get done?”

Peeler said village crews have repeatedly attempted to address the issue of the holes.

“Our crews go down there, I believe, almost on a daily basis, or several times a week. When you put soil on top of somewhere where you dug, it’s going to settle,” Peeler said. “Our DPW just reported to me this morning that it has not changed.”

On Tuesday, Weaver said the village hopes to have the repairs to the sewer line completed soon.

“We’re in the process of putting a new sewer pipe in,” Weaver said. “We’re looking to get back started again on it.”

Peeler said the issues on Digiorgi Lane are indicative of the severely deteriorating infrastructure he has consistently warned needs to be addressed.

“It’s just very aggravating,” said Peeler. “This is what I’ve been preaching.”

The problem, he added however, may not legally be all the villages.

“It’s important that we get an issue taken care of, but, truth be known, I’m not so sure we shouldn’t be penalizing her,” Peeler said. “It’s her sanitary drain that’s going into the storm.”

Peeler said the original estimates for the repairs to the sewer line, including repaving the road, totaled upwards of $19,000. That’s the figure, he said, that took several months to negotiate downward, resulting in the delay to the repairs.

“I believe we’ve got that cost down to somewhere in the area of $9,000 to $11,000,” said Peeler. “Nineteen thousand dollars doesn’t sound like a lot, but that’s just one repair in a small village.”

“For our budget, that’s a tremendous amount,” he added. “If we were to take that quote and do the emergency service right away we would have had to go out for a loan because the money just wasn’t there.”

Peeler said it was D’Alfonsi’s complaints about the odor that led village crews to discover the problem, not the appearance of the sinkholes.

Peeler also denied there is any issue with drainage on the street with the exception of the location of the village storm drain directly adjacent to D’Alfonsi’s home.

“We’ll be moving the storm drain from its current location because I told them to do that when I looked at. I told them to removed the storm drain because it’s offset onto her property, which used to be common back then,” Peeler said. “I said I think it would be better to put it in a location where the natural drainage goes, but there’s not drainage issue there.”

“What happened was there was a storm drain there,” he added. “There was no hole there.”

Weaver, however, agreed with D’Alfonsi that there was a drainage issue on the street that led to the sinkholes long before the odor was an issue. Addressing that problem, will likely take more time and, over course, more money.

“The holes developing lead us to the sewer problem,” Weaver said. “That’s completely separate. It’s just old infrastructure in the ground. That’s what it comes down to. We’re going to completely investigate it all. That’s the key.”

“Everything comes down to money,” he added. “It’s money.”

It’s also time.

Peeler said even with all the repairs made, the road itself is not likely to be completed until this spring.

“This issue that we have is that paving company’s are not open until May,” Peeler said.

Not that he’s not just as eager to see the matter put to bed as D’Alfonsi.

“At the end of the day, we’re just trying to repair it and get it done,” Peeler said. “I don’t want residents to feel uncomfortable and I don’t want this lingering any longer than it has to.”

In the meantime, the drainage problem that Peeler does not believe exists, much like the sinkholes, may be growing.

“My neighbor is telling me they’re getting sinkholes now, too,” said D’Alfonsi.