jay coward TWSA lawsuit

Attorney Jay Coward speaks to the TWSA board regarding a potential lawsuit involving the location of a sewer line.

By Beth Lawrence


The Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority may be facing legal action after an alleged misstep involving the location of a sewer line.

Attorney Jay Coward spoke to TWSA’s board at its Jan. 12 meeting apprising them of issues that arose following a “major” mudslide on Hamsfield Hall Road in Webster and his client’s belief that TWSA bears some responsibility in the fallout from the situation.

Coward is representing Lacy and Dottie Thornburg who use the road to access their home at the top of the hill. Lacy Thornburg is a former two-term state attorney general and retired U.S. District Court judge. 

“Dottie and Judge Thornburg have lived in their house out in Webster for more than 50 years,” Coward said. “The house has actually been occupied for more than a century, and the road leading into the house has been there the whole time it’s been occupied.”

The road also provides access for a Christmas tree farm and other homes.

The slide on the slope over Hamsfield Hall Road occurred last year following several severe storms that left damage across the county, Coward said.

The couple paid Graham County Land Company out of pocket to have a new road dug through the area away from the previous road. The new road is between five and 15 feet in places from the original roadbed because the old road was covered by the slide.

At that time there was already “probably a small amount” of water or possibly sewage seeping through the ground into the river, Coward alleged.

“There was an odor that they noticed that smelled like gas,” he said. “There were several people who commented on the smell that came from the water seeping down the bank at that time.”

As work to place a guard rail before stabilizing the slope face began, a new problem arose.

Contractors called TWSA to mark the sewer line that runs beneath the road so they could construct the guardrail without interfering with the line. Coward alleges that TWSA employees mismarked the line.

“They came in and where the new road was, they located the sewer line where the green line is (in Coward’s diagram),” Coward said. “They identified this as being the road and where the (sewer) line was located.”

When work crews began to sink pylons for the guard rail, a line was breached, causing the sewer to leak onto the bank and into the river below the lower slope.

“Where they had located the piles for the guardrails was right on top of the sewer line which had always been right here,” he said. “But they didn’t know where it was; they thought it was over here as identified by TWSA.”

Coward alleges that the riverbank disintegrated from the leak because the line in question is a force main system that forces sewage through the pipes instead of being fed by gravity.

TWSA repaired the line, but the road needs repair and the slide still needs to be cleaned up.

The couple also face fines from the Department of Environmental Quality over the delayed cleanup of the slide.

The Thornburgs have spent $30,000 out of pocket to address the issues, Coward said.

“They have a quote from a local building contractor who estimates that it’s going to take another $30,000 to fix the slide below,” Coward said.

The repair to the sewer line was done without moving it to match the roadbed.

Coward said slide cleanup cannot take place unless the line is moved to the center of the new road.

“We need to stabilize that slope and make it safe for the Thornburgs and the other three families who use it, to get in and out,” he said.

Coward requested that TWSA help pay for slide cleanup in addition to moving the line.

After presenting his case, Coward reminded the board that the couple had given the right of way to TWSA to run service to the area.

“I have not gotten into some of the arcane details about whether or not the sewer line was leaking before any of the work was performed, but there’s some evidence that in fact it was already leaking before the work was started,” Coward said. “I’m just hopeful that this board will recognize the contribution that the Thornburgs have made to create a decent sewer line in that area and that this has happened by accident. The storm that caused the initial slide is nothing that anybody had control over. But certainly locating the correct placement of the sewer line would have been of great help and would have not caused the second slide which was more severe.”

TWSA planned to discuss the matter in closed session at its Jan. 19 regular meeting.