Stinky: Sewer leak closes Bizou

Hairdresser John Carden noticed the odor several weeks ago around his salon on the west end of the Downtown Mall.

"It got worse and worse," he says. "It got to the point it was coming into the salon."

The problem: Ancient cast iron sewer pipes had crumbled like blue cheese, shutting down the popular eatery, Bizou, for a week.

The bigger problem: Every property owner on the Downtown Mall could be looking at the expense of having to jackhammer the Mall to replace aging pipes.

Larry Bambacus, who owns the building housing Bizou (and The Hook offices upstairs), has seen this problem before. "I think Thomas Jefferson put those pipes in the building," he says.

When Bambacus built an apartment building next door just over a decade ago, he says he found terra cotta pipes that kept breaking. "They're very fragile," he observes.

Even worse for Bambacus, the property owner is responsible for repairing the lateral line from the building and connecting it to the main sewer line running through the center of the Mall, a bill that could run up to $25,000, estimates Roto-Rooter's Andy Wilfong.

Then there is Bizou's cost for a week of lost business. For a while, there was a fear that the floor of its neighbor, Central Virginia Coin, would have to be dug up. And then there was the not-insignificant inconvenience for the building's other tenants, who weren't allowed to use the building's restrooms.

"It took awhile to determine what it was," says Jeff Leonard, water and wastewater administrator in public works, whose job it was to track down the source of the odor. "We finally pinpointed it to Bizou and the jewelry shop beside it."

Today's waste pipes are made of PVC. Along with Charlottesville's historic charm come its historic sewer lines. Can downtown denizens expect to see– and smell– more and more crumbling infrastructure?

"Grease is really hard on metal pipes, especially with sugar," explains Leonard. "It eats up the metal." That makes restaurants more prone to sewer line breakdowns.

"With age, everything is going to get weaker," says city engineer Tony Edwards. "It's reasonable to say that some of these service lines are going to show their age," especially those in place when the Mall was bricked over in the 1970s.

At least city mains are in good shape, according to Edwards. Those were relined with a resin that hardens into like-new pipe.

Carden compliments public works for sniffing out the source of the problem. "The city sent people down within 30 minutes," he says.

And Carden thinks the best solution to clearing the air is to acknowledge the problem. "The first step to recovery" he advises, "is admitting it."

Roto-Rooter service tech Andy Wilfong warns that other Downtown Mall cast iron sewer lines are going to rot out.


new  infrastructure isn't immune. On Monday, February 7, one tire on a Valley Proteins truck shattered the concrete/fiberglass cover of a two-year-old Dominion Virginia splice box on Second Street SE.