Heartland News ITeam Special Report: Sewage Wars | News
BUTLER COUNTY, MO (KFVS)- My first ITeam special report follows a paper trail dating back to May 2011.
The Butler County Health Department received its first complaint that month about a faulty septic system leaking raw sewage from one family's yard, and across the main road of a small subdivision about 10 miles south of Poplar Bluff.
"I have chosen this route, along with my community. Obviously, we want answers," Tim Bolin told me.
Bolin contacted me after tracking down a long list of reports and letters, showing the efforts of his neighbors and the Health Department Inspector to get the disgusting, and potentially dangerous mess cleaned up.
I went out to the subdivision January 22nd, and stood with Charlie Parker in his front yard.
We're standing here. This is your property. It's spongy. I can feel it underneath here. Is it always like this? I ask Charlie Parker. "When they have problems, yes," he responded.
Charlie Parker's front yard is soaked in raw sewage. I came out on a good day, where cold temperatures kept the smell to a minimum.
"It runs in the yard," Parker told. "When automobiles go by, they splatter it into the yard. It's hard to, in summertime, when you're trying to mow and weed eat. That's terrible."
"You cannot put your vehicle back in the garage for the smell," neighbor Wally Somers told me. "You have to hose it down. I don't see why I should have to put up with that every day."
"Do you worry about getting sick?" I asked Parker. "My wife does. She does."
Tim and Angie Bolin moved out here in November 2012, and quickly realized the persistent puddle stretching across the main road to their home had a source--the failing septic system at the home of Richard and Terrina Jackson.
"All we want in our community is just for the issue to be resolved," Bolin said. "That's all we're after. We're not after any vindictive motive, any grudge. We don't have anything against the landowners. We just want the issue resolved."
Bolin uncovered a stack of reports and letters all tied to the sewage leak, and soon realized his new neighbors had been complaining about it for nearly two years.
The paper trail led me to the Butler County Health Department, and investigator Chris Grider.
Following a complaint filed May 27, 2011, Grider tells me he went out to see the area for himself.
"They're walking in it. They're driving in it. They're carrying it into their homes," Grider said of the sewage effluent rising up from the Jackson's front yard and spilling onto the roadway. "It's a bigger problem than people realize."
Grider snapped several pictures and sent a sewage violation notice to the Jackson's on May 31, 2011.
"We've asked the owner to take steps to correct it. Nothing has ever been done that we know of to correct it," Grider said.
In August 2011, Grider took the next step. He sent a letter and probable cause statement to the Butler County Prosecuting Attorney's office. And nothing happened.
Each time a frustrated neighbor called him, Grider went back out, filed another report, and sent the prosecutor another letter. He made another copy of his file and hand-delivered it in December, 2011.
"I believe I've sent about 6 letters to the prosecuting attorney, outlining this and asking for his assistance," Grider recalled.
"Do you have any authority to do any more than what you've already done out there?" I asked Grider.
"No," he responded.
In January of 2012, the prosecutor's office responded. Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Paul Oesterreicher sent the Jackson's a brief letter, making them aware that if they didn't take steps to stop the leak, (quote)".....we will proceed with further legal action."
In the meantime, Parker and Somers both went to Richard Jackson looking for answers.
"I have talked with him and asked him (Jackson) when are you going to get something done. We're tired of it. I'm tired of driving through," Somers says. "And I'm getting a lot of lip service from him. I don't want that. I want him to take care of the problem."
I went to the door myself and found Terrina Jackson at home.
"Hi there. Are you Mrs. Jackson?" I asked.
"I am," she responded.
Terrina Jackson tells me her husband has talked to someone about fixing the leak.
"Does that worry you?" I asked her, pointing to her yard and the road in front of it.
"Yeah," she responded.
"Did you know this was like that when you moved in here?" I asked.
"Not when we moved in, no."
I will also note Richard Jackson made several attempts to reach me by phone and I called him back each time, but was unable to reach him both at home and at work.
Seated around the Bolin's dining room table, a group of neighbors believes, if the prosecutor's office had followed through, the unhealthy mess could have been long gone.
"I personally contacted Paul Oesterreicher by phone," Tim Bolin told me. "Paul was not very receptive. I advised him that I was going to take further action. And he told me basically, not word for word, he told me I needed to do what I see fit. So that's why we're here, wanting answers, wanting results."
I also spoke to Mr. Oesterreicher very briefly on the phone back on January 23.
When I asked him about the Jackson's situation, he told me they are reviewing the November 2012 letter sent by Chris Grider.
He did not acknowledge receiving the other five letters.
Oesterreicher says no one in his office agrees to on-camera interviews, but said he would agree to answer my questions by email.
Here is the list of questions I sent him in an email dated January 23, 2012.
Thank you for taking my call and for your willingness to share your office's efforts in this matter.
Here are my questions for you and/or Mr. Barbour—
1. When did your office first become aware of the sewage violations occurring on the property of Richard and Terrina Jackson at 33 Meadow Lake Drive, Harviell MO?
2. You sent a letter to the Jackson's on January 17, 2012, indicating they had 30 days to take action to alleviate the problem or "we will proceed with further legal action". It is clear from the Health Department investigator the violations still exist. What if any legal action did you take?
3. Have the Jackson's received any other correspondence from your office following the January 17, 2012 letter?
4. You mentioned on the phone earlier today that you are reviewing the November 26, 2012 letter sent to your office by Chris Grider with the Butler County Health Department. What about the letter he sent on December 12, 2012? Is that also being reviewed?
5. Is there a timetable as to when you'll decide what if any action to take, once you've completed your review of Mr. Grider's November 2012 letter?
6. What kind of charge/penalty can a homeowner receive if your office proceeds with legal action in a sewage violation impacting not just their property but others?
7. Mr. Grider opened his investigation on the Jackson property on May 27. 2011. He sent your office a letter and probable cause statement on August 10, 2011. His records indicate he sent a second copy of his file on the Jackson property on December 20, 2011. Letters obtained through open records requests show four additional letters sent by Mr. Grider between February 22, 2012 and December 12, 2012. Do you feel your office took appropriate action on what Mr. Grider called a "serious health issue" (in my interview conducted January 22, 2013) between August 2011 and January 2013?
The story I'm working on involving the Jackson case airs Thursday, January 31, 2013. In lieu of an on-camera interview, I will use your written responses in text form as part of my story, both on air and online. Don't hesitate to call me if you'd like to discuss the story further before responding to these questions. (end of email)
I have called Mr. Oesterreicher and left several messages inquiring about his answers. I also sent two follow up emails. I am still waiting for a response.
I will continue working on this story and let you know what, if any action is being taken to clear up the obvious health situation facing those residents.
If you have a story tip, email the ITeam at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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