Open sewage frustrates tenants living in apartments near St. Helens

Tenants at a small apartment complex say they endured overflowing sewer tanks and broken sewage pipes while worrying about the health of their families.
Published: Oct. 4, 2022 at 5:51 AM PDT
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ST. HELENS, Ore. (KPTV) - It was a stinky problem in Columbia County for far too long: Tenants at a small apartment complex said they endured overflowing sewer tanks and broken sewage pipes while worrying about the health of their families.

FOX 12 spoke with seven current tenants and two former tenants of the Barger Road Apartments outside of St. Helens, interviewing the neighbors over the course of two months.

Lindsey Klein and her fiancé, Jeff Arthur, reached out to FOX 12 at the end of June.

“It is leeching into the open and it’s one of those things that needs to be underground and covered, it’s gross,” Klein said in an interview, in July.

Another tenant did not want to be identified.

“I noticed the smell first and that’s when I went back there and checked and seen the open pipes flowing just wherever,” the tenant said.

FOX 12 asked if the landlord or property management company knew about the issue.

“Yes, several of us had reported it,” the tenant said.

Klein said her family has lived at the apartments for seven years, occasionally dealing with sewage issues.

“The [septic tank] here in the middle started overflowing about a year ago, literally like a fountain,” Klein said.

Tenants told FOX 12 it was this past January when their frustrations turned to fear and worry.

“Two tanks at the same time overflowed and flowed over the driveway, you could see the poop water going,” said the tenant who asked not to be named.

Klein said her family then got desperate: refusing to pay rent for months -- hoping that would lead to repairs -- or allow them to save up enough money to move out.

“Getting this stuff taken care of or getting us out of here because we are a single-income family,” Klein said. “We can’t afford to get out and pay for this place at the same time.”

Columbia County property records show the 12-unit complex is owned by TH6 LLC. The limited liability company is owned by Sidney True, a lawyer who works in Beaverton.

True declined to do an on-camera interview with FOX 12 but told us his maintenance staff have been working with septic professionals to fix the sewer system since the problems started in January; first, getting the septic tanks pumped immediately and then hiring another contractor to assess any damages or need for repairs.

While tenants waited for those repairs, they said problems persisted. Then summer hit, and that’s when neighbors say the smell got really bad.

“It was obvious septic, and it wasn’t there all the time, but as soon as that wind would shift you would have to go inside because it was terrible,” the tenant said.

At the apartment complex, there’s no on-site management.

True told FOX 12 that he was unaware of further issues and had asked his staff to authorize a contractor to submit a septic repair permit to the county in January.

True said his staff never heard of other sewage-related complaints until late June.

It’s contrary to an email obtained by FOX 12. The email was sent to property management on May 21, and complained of “open septic drainage pipes completely repulsive in look and smell…this is also very accessible and any child could ‘play’ in it.”

Photos attached to the email show a pipe filled with a pool of liquid.

“I’m very what people deem a ‘helicopter mom’ when it comes to being (at the apartment complex),” Klein said. “At the park I’m a very different person.”

In early July, when FOX 12 visited the apartments, our camera also captured a pool of liquid.

A week later, FOX 12 investigators contacted Columbia County Public Health, alerting staff to the tenants’ concerns, and triggering an official investigation. County records show the next day, a contractor submitted a permit application for sewer repair work at the property.

One day later, a Columbia County environmental health specialist inspected the complex property, writing in a report that the quote “failing system or need to perform a repair” left “sewage pooling in this area.”

It was after that inspection that the area with the sewage looked noticeably different. FOX 12 went back out to the apartments, where signs were posted warning of sewage, a fence closed off access to the area and brush was cut back.

Recently, the county confirmed that the sewage distribution boxes at the apartment complex have been fixed, although the inspector said some work is still remaining.

A lawyer representing Sidney True and his apartment complex sent FOX 12 a statement that reads, in part:

“My clients take great care to follow the letter of the law and provide their tenants with quality living spaces. Maintenance concerns inevitably arise in the normal course. When they do, tenants have a duty to timely notify the landlord and, likewise, the landlord has a duty to timely respond. The landlord has responded to each maintenance request. That said, repair timelines are necessarily impacted by the limited availability of appropriate contractors, parts and materials, which can cause delays in spite of the best efforts of the landlord.”

State business records show that Sidney True owns more than a hundred apartments and other commercial buildings across Oregon. Most of True’s tenants know their landlord as “True Holdings LLC.”