For the past few years, homeowners throughout eastern Queens have been saddled with exorbitant repair costs due to the lack of oversight of copper pipes by utility companies, according to lawmakers at a rally in Fresh Meadows.
Until recently, Verizon – the major utility company responsible for the damages, has denied any wrongdoing, but now that homeowners have issued a lawsuit and civic activists are drawing attention to the problem, the firm has slowly started to address the issue, according to Assemblyman David Weprin (D-Fresh Meadows).
“Our first thought when we heard about all of this was to blame the city,” said Weprin. “There was a number of studies done and finally it was determined that Verizon was the guilty utility. They pretty much admitted it. They discovered it themselves and they sent out claims adjusted looking to settle individually with each homeowner. They would not be doing that if they weren’t guilty. I know some homeowners would rather go the lawsuit route and do not want to settle with them. I don’t blame them for that. There should be accountability.”
On April 17, Verizon issued a letter to local homeowners after being advised by the city’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) of damage to properties from their eroded underground copper pipes that “may have” caused leaks onto local residential property.
“We have determined that the cause of corrosion has been from stray sources of the current involved,” according to the letter from Verizon, which has not taken full responsibility for the problem. “To avoid that complex, time-consuming and expensive process and further inconvenience to you, we have decided to reimburse affected homeowners without admitting liability.”
Verizon did issue a statement to Queens County Politics on May 23.
“We believe that it is possible that in some cases, stray current on Verizon’s underground facilities contributed to the corrosion, but there may be other sources,” said Verizon’s East Coast spokesman David Weissmann. “We are taking steps to address the stray current coming from Verizon’s equipment. The stray current did not at any time present a shock hazard. We thank the DEP for alerting us to the issue and their assistance in our investigation.”
To prevent homeowners from ever having to be burdened by the cost of outside repairs that are no fault of their own, Weprin and State Sen. John Liu (D-Bayside) have introduced the Utility Responsibility Bill (S4118B/A5254B) to protect them from the financial drain that has plagued residents with up to several thousands in charges.
“It is moving through the committee system,” said Weprin who grew up in Fresh Meadows where most of the property damages took place. “It was passed out of the city’s committee thanks to Chairman Ed Braunstein (D-Bayside), a neighboring assembly member despite opposition.”
An estimated 32 homes were damaged on 188 Street near 81st Avenue in Fresh Meadows in less than half a mile, according to Councilman Barry Grodenchik (D-Oakland Gardens).
“This is not like getting a window fixed, this is not like a back-up sink getting fixed,” said Grodenchik. “This is a five figure repair. This is not a poor community, but very few people have $10, $12 or $15,000 lying around waiting to be ambushed by some underground current.”
Liu wants to fight for homeowners that have shouldered the fines even though they weren’t responsible for the chaos that disrupted their lives.
“You invested your life in your home, you raised your kids in your home, you’ve been living in your home and then suddenly you find that your pipes, not the pipes inside your house, but the pipes outside your house underground are leaking,” said Liu. “You are told you would have to fix this or you would be fined and it costs you thousands of dollars to fix it. You are not really sure, so you know you got to get this fix, you fix it. Then a year later it happens again!”
The phenomenon of electrolysis or direct electric current is also known as DC current, which is similar to the chemical and laser process of removing hair and is the activity that is eroding the pipes at a far faster rate than usual, according to Elaine Young, the co-president of the West Cunningham Park Civic Association.
“That corrosion is a result of utility infrastructure, infrastructure owned by utility companies that have not been maintained properly,” said Liu. “We are talking about legislation that is moving through the Legislature in Albany to finally hold these utility companies responsible for those costs, but even more importantly maintains their infrastructure so that our neighbors or homeowners don’t have to go through the migraine headaches they’ve been enduring for far too long.”
Many people who had protection plans soon learned because the damage was from a third party utility that their insurance wouldn’t cover the destruction to their homes, according to Young.
“They weren’t covered for that,” said Young. “Verizon or any other utilities that are affecting people’s service lines throughout this city need to be responsible for their infrastructure. What we have heard from [the Verizon investigation] is that the strange DC current has come from the old copper landlines, but as everybody has converted to FiOS or Spectrum, and whatever other digital phone service, those wires continued to emit this DC current, but it wasn’t going anywhere. It started to start corrosion and that is really unconscionable. You can’t tell me that Verizon wouldn’t know what the result of that would be.”
Rocky Hill Civic Association President Suzanne Peritz said she had seen some plumbers hired by Verizon reach out to homeowners to fix the damage free of cost and has heard of some residents settling their cases individually with the company, but she doesn’t care for the company’s modus operandi, which is to not simply admit their guilt in the lack of maintenance of the pipes.
To have a claim managed by Verizon homeowners can call 800-451-7336 or 888-271-6414 with Sedgwick Claims Management Services, Inc.