The family of a woman killed in a deadly sewage sinkhole in 2016 will receive $12 million as part of a settlement agreement, according to their attorney.
The settlement involving construction company S.J. Louis Construction of Texas and engineering contractor CDM Smith comes about two and a half years after off-duty Bexar County Sheriff’s Deputy Dora Linda Nishihara lost her life in the sinkhole that opened across both lanes of Quintana Road on the Southwest Side.
Nishihara was trapped and drowned in the pit after her vehicle plunged into the rushing sewage the night of Dec. 4, 2016, along with two other drivers who managed to escape after their own vehicles went into the sinkhole.
Daniel Sciano, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, said the nearly 40 depositions taken in the discovery phase of the case, among other evidence, showed that engineers and construction workers designed and built a “makeshift” pipe connection using a segment of corrugated metal pipe that ultimately failed. Corrugated metal pipe is often used in drainage projects, such as culverts, but not sewer lines.
Last year, a former SAWS inspector assigned to the job told the Rivard Report that the pipe connection using that material “should have never been allowed.”
“What’s infuriating to me is everyone knew that that material was ultimately unacceptable for wastewater,” Sciano said in a Monday phone interview. “It was a method to save money and allegedly save time that took the life of a uniformed sheriff’s deputy and mother, severely hurt two other people, and cost the SAWS ratepayers significant amounts of money and time.”
As part of efforts to revolve the case before a pending trial in September, SAWS President and CEO Robert Puente said SAWS would receive $500,000 each from S.J. Louis and CDM Smith, separate from a settlement among the two companies and the plaintiffs.
Sciano said the private settlement totaled $14.75 million, which doesn’t include the money paid to SAWS. Those funds also include payments to two other victims who were injured in the pit in 2016.
Puente said the sewer line that collapsed under the section of Quintana Road has been fully repaired and put back in service as work on that line has continued to shift upstream in the sewage system.
“When something like this happens, there’s always
an angst by the public, especially the driving public, as to how do we know the road we’re on is safe,” Puente said. “Well, this particular situation was unique, something that’s probably not going to happen again.”
The construction to increase the sewer line’s capacity is part of SAWS’ work on its undersized and leaking sewage network. The utility is under a 10-year, $1.4 billion consent decree with federal regulators that require it to finish overhauling its wastewater system by 2023.
Sciano called the spending a “staggering amount of money being paid to address what is essentially a decaying wastewater system and capacity issue in the seventh-largest city in the nation.”