A few yards outside David Mastrianni’s four-bedroom, three-bathroom home is a 10-foot-tall wooden outhouse.
But Mastrianni doesn’t live in rural country where you might expect to see an outhouse. He lives in the Parkview Oaks neighborhood, right off busy Coursey Boulevard and in the heart of South Baton Rouge.
Mastrianni, who lives in the home with his ex-wife and adult grandson, said the outdoor bathroom — really just a bucket and some toilet paper — is needed because his family can’t flush toilets during heavy rain.
“Every time there’s a heavy rain event, the toilets stop working,” he said. “When you have to use the bathroom seriously, we have to use the buckets, or else we’ll go somewhere.”
Plumbing problems like Mastrianni’s are not uncommon in Baton Rouge, which suffers from an undersized and inadequately maintained sewer system.
Sewage flows out of manholes during heavy rain in neighborhoods across the parish. In some cases, sewage overflows into homes from toilets. That’s happened to Mastrianni twice, so far.
The overflows occur because the sewer system’s pipes are too small to handle the rush of rain water and sewage flowing through the system during heavy rain, so the sewage and storm water overflows into streets and homes, and ultimately into local waterways.
That’s why Baton Rouge is under a federal consent decree mandating that the city-parish fix the sewer system by the end of 2018. The deadline for the $1.5 billion rehabilitation project was extended last month.
Public Works Deputy Director Bryan Harmon said the city-parish is making significant progress with construction projects to decrease sewer overflows.
“Obviously we are very concerned with sewer overflows. That is why we are spending over $1 billion in sewer improvements with the primary focus to address such,” he said. “The larger projects at the treatment plants are all under construction and the major line work from the plants going out into the system are well underway.”
He said the construction work already has reduced sewer overflows by half compared with before heavy construction began on the sewer system.
The average number of overflows between 2002 and 2007 was 165 per year, compared with the average from 2009 to 2011 when it was 82 per year, Harmon said.
As for Mastrianni’s neighborhood, Harmon said the area is scheduled for two construction projects that will double the sewer line capacity — but the projects won’t be finished for at least 22 months.
As the city-parish works feverishly to finish the construction work, it’s been paying residents millions of dollars in damages related to sewer backups in their homes.
Between 2006 and 2012, the most recent numbers available, the city-parish spent more than $4 million on claims from residents who have had sewage flow into their homes.
The city-parish paid a total of 1,910 sewer-related claims for the six-year period, records show.
Gene Booth, city-parish risk manager, said the vast majority of sewer-related claims are settled without litigation.
However, Mastrianni has refused to accept city-parish money for the most recent damage to his home from a sewage overflow. He said he didn’t want to sign a waiver preventing him from suing.
In May, he filed suit against the city-parish seeking payment for his family’s “physical pain and suffering, mental anguish, loss of enjoyment of life, property damage, depreciation, loss of use, (and) stigma,” according to court documents.
The city-parish responded last month to his lawsuit, denying his allegations.
In addition to his toilet not flushing during rainstorms, Mastrianni said he has had two incidents at his current address where sewage has come into his home.
A few months ago, Mastrianni said, he found a live rat floating in his toilet that came in through the sewer system. He said he also has found cockroaches in the toilet and that it’s common for sewage to pool on his street around the manhole.
But mostly, Mastrianni is concerned about the public health impact. He said the sewage that comes into homes and flows through the streets is a health threat to people exposed to it.
When it backs up into a home, he said, homeowners are the first line of defense, even if the city-parish later offers to bring in contractors to do additional cleanup.
“There’s only so many towels you can create dams with in hopes of stopping it from getting in other places in the house,” Mastrianni said. “It gets under the laminate and stays there and you’re walking around in other people’s poop.”
He said the city-parish should treat overflows like toxic waste sites and use Hazmat teams to clean up the sites to ensure that bacteria and disease have not spread.
Harmon said that while the wastewater does not have “toxic” chemicals in it, it does contain pathogenic bacteria, viruses and protozoa.
“Therefore, people who come into contact with the sewage when cleaning it up in overflow should immediately wash with soap and warm water,” Harmon said, adding that the areas of the home should be cleaned with chlorine bleach.
Mastrianni said he’s mostly worried about his young granddaughters who often visit his home. He said the outhouse was actually supposed to be a clubhouse he was building for the girls.
One side has rock climbing holds, which prevents neighbors from recognizing it immediately as an outhouse, Mastrianni said. He also playfully decorated the front with an old restaurant sign he bought at a garage sale.
But the inside is unmistakably an outhouse.
Mastrianni said it’s time for the city-parish to acknowledge that people’s lives are being disrupted by the sewer problems.
“They are not treating me, and my family and other peoples’ families experiencing this toxicity the way they should,” he said. “The biggest thing for me is the toxicity of it, the disease of it and the grossness of it.”
Editor’s note: The story was changed on July 15, 2013, to correct the subdivision where the outhouse is located.