Lagoons plague Prathersville

Sewage problem creates health and financial concerns for residents.
Thursday, June 10, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:17 p.m. CDT, Monday, June 30, 2008

When Sherri Martin looks out her window, all she sees is a stream of sewage running down an embankment through her back yard on North Wagon Trail Road. It’s a problem she’s been dealing with for two years.

“My yard looks like hogslop, and it smells as bad,” said Martin.

The muddy-looking water runs down a slope, saturating her yard and running onto her neighbor’s. The sewage is so bad that her dog won’t venture into the back yard it once loved to play in.

Faulty lagoons are a problem for residents throughout the Prathersville area. Gerry Worley, an environmental health manager at the Columbia/Boone County Health Department, said the problem has been around for 30 to 40 years. When the sewer lagoons were created as the area developed, there were no planning and zoning regulations for sewage disposal in place.

“They just built their sewage systems however they wanted to,” Worley said.

Skip Elkin, Boone County northern district commissioner, said fixing the lagoons would cost each homeowner $15,000 to $20,000.

“One thing we are working on with the Mid-Missouri Regional Planning Commission is we are seeking Community Development Block Grants — or CDBG money — to help subsidize this project to reduce the individual burden on each property owner,” Elkin said.

If the grants do not come through, the financial responsibility for addressing the problem would fall on the homeowners.

Because there are so many lagoons and so many government entities involved, it’s been difficult to develop a plan to correct the faulty lagoons. Elkin said the Boone County Regional Sewer District soon will choose an engineering firm to tackle the situation, but actual work won’t begin for some time.

“We would not see construction for 12 to 18 months,” Elkin said.

Just last week, 25 residents of the Prathersville area received a letter from the health department telling them their lagoons are violating county health codes and are a public nuisance. The letter stated that a public sewer system would have to be created to solve “the chronic problem” and that simply fixing the lagoons is unacceptable. Those in violation, it said, would be required to participate in the Boone County Sanitary Sewer System Remediation Program or face possible legal action.

Worley said the plan is to create a public sewer system that will serve the area and eventually interconnect with Columbia’s sewer system. Worley said a proposal was presented months ago to residents to help gauge the level of support.

“(The health department) had a meeting with the neighborhood eight or 10 months ago to explain what was being done,” he said, adding that few people attended.

Tom Ratermann, general manager of the sewer district, said the first step in taking care of the problem is to create a Neighborhood Improvement District. However, the county is unable to form the district unless two-thirds of the property owners in the area petition for it.

Ratermann said the sewer district will hold a meeting for the Prathersville-area residents to discuss the NID. He said a petition will either be available at the meeting for them to sign or one would be drawn up directly afterward.

“What the Boone County Sanitary Sewer System Remediation Program proposes is if a property is in violation and there is a neighborhood improvement district being formed, the circuit court could order them to participate in the program,” Ratermann said.

While the environment is always a concern when there’s a problem with sewage, Ratermann said this problem is more of a threat to public health.

Meanwhile, Martin is growing impatient. A letter sent to her neighbor by the health department in April 2003 gave the owner 60 days to repair or replace the lagoon; after that the problem was to be turned over to the prosecuting attorney.

“Here it is, 2004, a year later, and nothing’s still been done,” Martin said. “It wasn’t turned over to the prosecuting attorney, and no steps were taken.”

Worley said that to demand the lagoon be fixed within 60 days was unreasonable. He also said the problem could not simply be turned over to a person who had not been directly involved with the situation and expect him or her to solve it.

“We want to develop a cohesive plan rather than prosecute someone next door,” Worley said.

In the meantime, Elkin said he’d like to find a way to help Martin.

“What I would like to do is to seek a temporary measure to keep the sewer from running in Sherri’s back yard,” he said. “Nobody should have to live in those conditions.”

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