South Ruffner Road closed for sewer project
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- You're out of luck if you try to head up South Ruffner Road these days, at least during normal working hours.
And if you're among the 300 or so families that live along Lick Branch or its tributaries, you have to take a long detour through Loudon Heights to avoid the sewer project that's inching up South Ruffner.
The roadblock can turn a one-minute trip from the mouth of the hollow to the South Side Bridge into a five-mile, 15-minute scenic tour along Hampton Road and Loudon Heights Road.
It's a necessary evil, said James Pierson, project manager with Pipe Plus Inc., the Nitro contractor working on the job.
"The road's going to be closed from 7:30 [a.m.] to 6 [p.m.] Monday to Thursday unless we get rained out," Pierson said. "If it rains Tuesday, we'll work on Friday to get our 40 hours in.
"I wouldn't want it if it was my road," he said.
Local residents seem to be taking it in stride, at least so far, say City Council members from the area.
"There's no question it's an inconvenience," said Mike Clowser of Ward 21, who said he's gotten one complaint since work started last month.
He and Ward 17 Councilman Bobby Reishman said a well-attended town-hall meeting at South Ruffner Baptist Church last year helped prepare residents, as did flyers hung door-to-door by the Charleston Sanitary Board two weeks before work started.
"I think the sanitary board and the engineer did a good job of explaining the project," Clowser said. "There's going to be dirt and dust when it's 90 degrees and mud when it rains. I think the biggest question that came up was the road closures.
"I think most of the residents understand the city is under a consent agreement to upgrade its sewers."
The city of Charleston signed an agreement with state and federal regulators in 2005 to fix its outdated sewage-collection system and reduce the amount of polluted water that enters rivers. According to some estimates, the total cost could reach $250 million.
"This is another step in our long-term control plan. That's the combined sewer-reduction plan," said Larry Roller, general manager of the sanitary board.
"Charleston is one of many communities that is considered a combined-sewer community," Roller said. During hard rains, its storm and sanitary sewers combine and overflow into the Kanawha River.
But by plugging holes and cracks in feeder lines like the one that runs down the creek bed of Lick Branch, rainwater no longer can flow in and overwhelm the system. Also, in dry times, sewage can't leak out into the creek.
The Lick Branch-South Ruffner Sewer Rehabilitation Project calls for replacing seven miles of sewer lines and putting a plastic liner in a mile of existing pipe, at a cost of $11.6 million.
It also involves more than 300 customer connections, 270 manholes and about 400 temporary easements that allow contractors to work on private property.
Sanitary board contractors are winding up a similar, $27 million project, along Kanawha Two-Mile that frustrated neighbors last year with potholes, dust and delays along dead-end Sugar Creek Drive.
Pierson estimated his crew had installed between 200 and 300 feet of 10-inch sewer pipe in the first two or three weeks, starting at the lower end of South Ruffner Road.
"We'll probably have two crews working -- one working on the mainline and the second working behind them, hooking up customers, concreting the road back up."
On a recent morning, Pipe Plus had three crews on the job, he said. "We have six people in this crew [on the mainline], four on Adrian Road and five on the crew up in the woods."
With an orange Doosan excavator, they carved a trench 10 to 12 feet deep along the right-hand lane of the road heading up the hollow, Pierson said.
"It's 4 to 6 feet wide -- enough to get our trench box in, and every time we put a manhole in, we have to dig 10 feet wide." The trench box is a pair of steel plates that press against the sides of the ditch, protecting workers inside from a cave-in.
With a maze of water and gas pipes hidden underground, not to mention rocks and springs, progress can be slow.
"On a good day, we can do 100 feet. We lay it in 20-foot sections. You've got groundwater. You've got utility lines to deal with. When you've got a fiber-optic line, water pouring in, it's hard to get 20 feet in. It's never the same thing day to day."
Every evening, they cover any open ditches with steel plates and reopen the road to traffic.
As part of the city-approved traffic control plan, electric message boards on both sides of MacCorkle Avenue tell drivers how far they can drive up the hollow before they reach the work site.
"We have 300 days to get the job done, but we'd like to get South Ruffner done by the end of October so we can get it paved," Pierson said. "But let's make this clear: I don't have a crystal ball."
Once the job is complete, sewers along South Ruffner will be much less likely to back up during storms, said Tim Haapala, operations manager at the sanitary board.
In addition, each customer will get a sewer cleanout assembly near their property line, he said. "It's a 6-inch-diameter piece of vertical pipe with a screw cap on it. In all our new construction, we put them in."
In case of a problem, workers can drop a robotic camera down the pipe that can crawl through the system, looking for leaks or blockages.
Pipe Plus, one of the contractors on the Kanawha Two-Mile project last year, specializes in sewer installations, Pierson said.
"It's pretty similar to what we did on Chandler Drive," he said. "It might be a little narrower here.
"We're a local company. We understand it's an inconvenience. We're doing our best to get the job done.
"Job number two, aside from not getting anybody hurt, it trying not to inconvenience homeowners."
Reach Jim Balow at email@example.com or 304-348-5102.