The family of the Somerset home destroyed in a January landslide filed a claim Thursday for nearly $5 million in damages, alleging the city of Bellevue not only is responsible but also was aware of the risk that aging water infrastructure could cause such an event.
At the center of the argument by John and Barb Surdi is asbestos cement, said David Bricklin, the attorney representing the homeowners. The pipe material makes up around 40% of Bellevue’s water system and is “more likely to fail catastrophically than iron pipes,” which may form minor leaks, according to Bellevue’s planning documents.
Asbestos cement was a popular building material in North America between 1940 and 1980 and makes up about 10% to 20% of water mains in the U.S., according to estimates by the Environmental Protection Agency and industry groups.
In the Surdi family’s case, the couple awoke the morning of Jan. 17 after the 8-inch-diameter section of the asbestos cement water main that ran behind and above their home broke.
John Surdi said he saw water running over his driveway and heard water gushing from the parking lot of the private school behind his property. Moments later, his home of over 20 years slid off its foundation and partially collapsed with his wife and dog in it. The event forced 40 people in the area to evacuate.
“We have suffered emotional harm due to being caught in the mudflow and witnessing the immediate aftermath and ongoing horror of losing our home,” the claim says.
In a written statement included in the claim, Barb Surdi, who was upstairs when her home collapsed, said she sees a trauma counselor multiple times a week and is getting treated for lingering injuries. She and her husband are currently staying with son, sleeping on a mattress on the floor.
“Since January 17th, I am a shell of the person I use to be. I feel so empty that it makes me feel physically sick inside,” she said.
The claim includes coverage of the home, estimated to be valued between $2 to $3 million; John Surdi’s carpet cleaning business; six personal and business vehicles; and other personal belongings.
Bellevue officials are wrapping up demolition of the home and are investigating the incident, saying they have not ruled out the possibility a natural landslide or other factors may have caused the pipe to break and destabilize the ground. However, the Surdis say the cause of the slide could not be more clear.
Regardless of whether the slope started to move first, or the pipe ruptured first, the city is liable, the claim says.
“Our expectation is in the end the city’s going to pay as the responsible party,” Bricklin said. “It was their water pipe that broke.”
Asbestos cement in Bellevue’s water system
Asbestos cement was widely used for water pipes across North America in the mid-20th century because cement could be easily and cheaply manufactured, said Marc Bracken, an engineer in Canada who has studied water pipes and leaks.
While developing countries still use the material, North American cities have largely moved away from it due to asbestos’s reputation and cheaper alternatives like plastic, he said.
Those aging pipes can be a ticking “time bomb” for cities since asbestos cement pipes tend to fail “catastrophically” after they degrade, because they explode from pressurized water rather than form a minor leak, Bracken said.
Despite this, some asbestos cement pipes last decades or even over a century without degrading, he said. The age of the pipe is not always a good predictor, and those looking to monitor asbestos cement pipes should look instead to the acidity of the water, surrounding soils or stressors on the pipe like water pressure changes or slope movement, according to Bracken.
However, most cities do not monitor the quality of their water pipes effectively enough to prevent these severe breakages, he said.
These pipes are the oldest and break at higher rates than other materials, according to Bellevue’s planning documents. Around 2008, Bellevue allocated funds to accelerate the replacement of asbestos cement pipes with small diameters, which break at the highest rates, said Linda DeBoldt, the city’s assistant director for utilities engineering.
Bellevue spends about $11 million to replace 5 miles of water pipes annually, she said. As of 2020, there are about 236 miles of asbestos cement pipe remaining in the city’s pipes, according to Bellevue’s annual water reports. The city plans to eventually move onto larger asbestos cement pipes and under the schedule, the oldest asbestos cement pipes will be 118 when they are replaced.
Besides funding, replacing pipes is logistically difficult, often cutting off residents’ water service temporarily, DeBoldt said. Infrastructure projects also have to be planned in conjunction with keeping the utility’s rates consistent and affordable, she said.
When deciding which pipes to replace, DeBoldt said the city considers factors like the pipe’s age, diameter, material and whether a section nearby has recently broken. The city also has a leak-detection program that examines about 10% of the water system annually, she said.
The 50-year-old section of pipe behind the Surdis’ home was not scheduled to be replaced for at least another 20 years and appeared to be in its midlife with no history of leaks or breaks, she said. There were also no nearby system issues like pump or valve failures that occurred before its breaking, she said.
Despite the high percentage of asbestos cement pipes in the city’s system, DeBoldt said Bellevue’s water main break rate is low compared to other municipalities and is half that of Seattle’s — which is an older system, she said.
“It’s virtually impossible to prevent all breaks, but we have a very active asset management program to keep the rate of breaks as low as possible and balance that with cost and service levels,” she said.
Bricklin said Bellevue had a responsibility to replace the pipes as soon as they knew they could fail. He also said the city could have warned the Surdi family or anyone else living near asbestos cement pipes of the risk of failure and monitored their quality more closely.
The city failed to do so, leaving the Surdis uninformed of the “peril” they faced, the claim says.
“If the city decides to take the risk and not replace all the pipes right away, if something bad happens, it’s the city that ought to make good at that point, not have that fall on an innocent homeowner,” he said.
Can water pipes be proactively monitored?
Retired civil engineer David Westhaver said when he learned about the collapsed home, he worried a similar event could happen to his Bellevue home, which also sits on a hill.
He looked up the type of pipes in his Forest Glen neighborhood and said he was relieved to see it was not asbestos cement.
Bellevue’s water planning documents state that obtaining “useful information on the condition” of asbestos cement water pipe is a challenge. DeBoldt said Bellevue tries to assess pipe conditions during scheduled repairs but cannot inspect buried, active and in-service pipes unless they are turned off and exposed.
The Surdi family and Bellevue residents question why the city didn’t know about the burst pipe immediately after the main broke. DeBoldt said the city relies on reports from utility crews or residents to identify leaks but has no way to monitor specific pipe sections outside of aboveground facilities like pump stations.
That degree of surveillance is typical for municipal water systems, and most minor leaks that never reach the surface are never discovered, Bracken said.
“The water industry, with some notable exceptions, is really ‘bury and forget’ until it starts failing,” he said.
While the investigation into the case is underway, Bricklin said the Surdis hope Bellevue will take responsibility for the damage.
“The last thing they want to do is spend a year or two in court waiting for justice and paying lawyers in the meantime,” Bricklin said.
If Bellevue rejects the claims and denies liability a lawsuit could take “a long time” to resolve, said Robert Freedman, a California attorney who has represented defendants and plaintiffs in construction defect cases. Some cases have taken years to resolve, he said.
Typically, the city will argue a home was improperly built, had bad drainage or the soils were already saturated due to the weather, he said.
Often in these cases, geotechnical and structural engineers will be called in on both sides to offer opinions, Freedman said.
“It’s just going to be a battle of technical experts,” he said.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated that Seattle’s water system is newer than Bellevue’s.
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