Who pays for damage to Richardson homes flooded by water pipe break? District says 'Not us'

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The pipe was made by Gifford-Hill-American Inc. which dates back to a 1946 joint venture involved in building the Lake Kickapoo pipeline for Wichita Falls. Gifford-Hill-American has since changed ownership multiple times and now operates as part of Irving-based Forterra, which is part of California-based Thompson Pipe.

A spokesman with Forterra could not be reached for comment, though the district said “we notified Forterra and their representatives were on site during the repairs.”

The Richardson pipe was installed in 1981, the district said. That’s long before the late 1990s, when many of the homes in the area were built. The pipe has a typical life expectancy of up to 100  years, the district said.

So what happened?

“The cause of the pipeline break is unknown,” the district said, noting it has hired third-party firms to conduct a forensic investigation. “That investigation is expected to take months to complete.”

As part of the investigation, the district said it will be checking other pipes, a process that will begin in earnest during the winter months when demand is lower.

That could cost more than $1 million, said Tom Kula, the district’s executive director. Repair and cleanup in Richardson is expected to cost about $700,000.  Kula said he doesn’t expect the added costs to impact rates. 

The district acknowledged the burst pipe had never been inspected. The district has 20.2 miles of transmission pipelines in Richardson, from a number of different suppliers, and nearly 395 miles in its 10-county service area.

“Pipeline breaks like this one are very rare and an inspection on this pipe had not been done because it had no prior issues and was far from reaching its life expectancy,” the district said. “Maintenance is scheduled based on age or a history of failures.”

That left the homeowners facing a triple threat: They didn’t know the pipe was there, the pipes generally aren’t inspected unless they’re old or troublesome, and in the event of a catastrophic failure, the district says it’s not responsible.

Citing security reasons, the district declined to give The News a map showing the location of the pipes, but said consumers “who would like information about the proximity of district facilities or infrastructure for their specific addresses can contact the district directly.”

When Sylvester Lee and wife Martha became two of the first residents of the area in 1999, Lee specifically wanted to avoid things he thought might later be a hazard, such as overhead utility power lines. 

The Lees said they still are working with insurer The Hartford Co. to see what will be covered. But they fear years of accumulated belongings — from furniture to keepsakes — won’t be.

Sylvester Lee, who is “70-something” and semi-retired following a career at Raytheon, worries the uncovered costs might force him back to work.

“We don’t know what it’s going to cost to remedy this and have some normality at the end,” he said, adding that the couple has canceled a cruise planned to celebrate their upcoming 50th wedding anniversary.  “I’m not doing anything full time now but that may be in the future.”

On Thursday, he urged the board to “get past the sovereign immunity so that other families don’t have to go through this.”

The Lees and other residents spoke both wistfully and forcefully about fairness.

“If they’re allowed to do this without paying the homeowners,” Martha Lee said, “it could happen to anyone.”

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