A top city official rejects the conclusions of a preliminary investigation into the source of sewer gases conducted by the owner of Laguna Terrace Mobile Home Park and has asked state regulators with authority over the park to intervene.
Hometown America Inc. recently released findings of an inquiry into complaints by park residents that began in May 2015 after a main line sewer was replaced. The presentation by Hometown chief executive Stephen Braun suggested the sewer gas hydrogen sulfide detected in homes as originating offsite. Residents believe long-term exposure to the gas, which smells like rotten eggs, is making them sick.
“We disagree with their conclusions that it’s outside the park,” said David Shissler, the city’s water quality director, who attended the Jan. 31 presentation where a third of the 60 to 70 residents present raised hands to report smelling sewer gases in their homes.
The odor test results presented compressed the data into months, while hourly monitoring is necessary to figure out the problem, Shissler said. Nor could Hometown provide “as built” stamped engineering plans for the sewer system, which would, for example, show the actual depth of lines and the materials used. Shissler said he received a hand-drawn “schematic.”
“As built” drawings are required by the city’s building department so future contractors can avoid unintentionally digging into in-ground infrastructure, Shissler explained. Hometown’s sewer plan did not undergo review by city officials, but received permit approval from the state’s Housing and Community Development Department, which enforces construction standards in mobile home parks. “There are no engineered as built plans HCD is aware of,” Evan Gerberding, an agency spokesman, said this week.
Shissler suspects the park problem originates with the design of the gravity-based sewer system that failed to account for elevation changes in the 156-space park. Some homes enjoy ocean views from atop a coastal bluff while others ascend into a slot canyon.
In a sewer line inadequately adjusted for the grade, the contents picks up velocity and could completely fill pipes that are designed to operate only partially filled. Full pipes will force the accompanying sewer gases out somewhere, Shissler explained. “That’s the theory; it’s the people at the bottom of the hill,” where gases are entering homes, he said. In a canyon, a proper sewer installation would slow the velocity with stair-steps, he said.
While Shissler lacks the authority to compel action, he said he’s called on Hometown and HCD to hire third-party odor control experts “to pull this thing apart” in order to prove out their design.
“I wouldn’t expect anyone to tolerate hydrogen sulfide,” he said.
Hometown America owns 45 properties for prefabricated-homes nationwide, many designed for adults 55 and older. The Chicago-based company bought Laguna Terrace for a purported $72 million in 2013 from the Esslinger family, who founded the community decades ago.
State regulators so far have yet to heed Shissler’s advice to seek an outside evaluation of the plans they approved. “At this time, it has not been determined whether or not it is needed for HCD to hire a second third-party agency to further investigate possible causes,” Gerberding said. The agency is working with Hometown and its experts to evaluate monitoring hydrogen sulfide, he said.
In a memo to residents dated Feb. 13, Braun promised a prompt report about the possible “elevator” effect of back up gases, the installation of more monitors in homes and better communication with residents.
Some residents say Braun isn’t living up to his pledges: requests for hourly gas monitors have gone unanswered. So did the Indy’s calls to Braun this week seeking comment.
“I feel like we’re the peon people; they are going to put us off,” said park resident Megan Hampton, who expressed frustration that Hometown officials seem dismissive of advice from experts such as Shissler. A monitor installed last October in her home shows hourly readings of hydrogen sulfide ranging from 2 to 3 parts per million. Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards don’t address long-term exposure. “I can’t live where my health is in jeopardy,” Hampton said.
Resident Jeff Bardzik says he’s received no response to his request for a monitor. “Communication is pretty one-way,” he said.
“They don’t tell us what they’re doing,” added Michele McCormick, a psychologist, who contends the gases in her home are responsible for respiratory problems, fatigue and eye irritation. Other residents have resorted to closing off rooms to avoid exposure to odors, she said. “That’s why people aren’t coming forward.”
Filing a formal HCD complaint about the presence of sewer gases, as McCormick did in 2016, would require disclosure by an owner wanting to sell their home, she said. Current listings in the park on realtor.com range from $119,000 to $400,000, which excludes monthly space rents of $3,200 to $4,028 on 20-year leases.
Yet, the lack of formal complaints and quantified data on the presence of sewer gases may be a reason regulators have not intervened more aggressively.
Gerberding was asked why a show of hands witnessed by an HCD official at the Jan. 31 meeting where 30 park residents reported sewer odor complaints was not cause for a department investigation. He said only two park residents have filed formal complaints with the department and just one park resident provided the agency with sewer gas readings that contradicted findings by Hometown’s engineering consultants.
“Shame on them for not being proactive,” said Bardzik.