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Witnesses tell of ongoing sewage problems at Cherry Orchard

By Dave Hinton/Rantoul Press editor — An official with an Urbana wastewater treatment company said he saw raw sewage on top of the ground and children running through it at an apartment building complex.

Steve Johnson, president of J&S Wastewater Systems Inc., testified this week in the trial of Eduardo and Bernard Ramos, managers of Cherry Orchard apartments, located between Rantoul and Thomasboro.

The bench trial before Judge John Kennedy is expected to wrap up Monday at Champaign County Courthouse. The Ramoses, who are representing themselves, will present defense testimony.

The Ramoses are charged with violating the Champaign County public health ordinance through unlawful discharge of sewage, unlawful rental of noncompliant property, failure to obtain a construction permit and unlawful repair or alteration of a sewer system. Assistant State’s Attorney Christina Papavasiliou is also seeking an injunction that would shut down the apartment complex until sewage problems are remedied.

Also sought are fines of $500 per day until sewage systems are repaired, $500 per day until all tenants are vacated from the premises and one-time fines totaling $1,000. Restitution of $500 is also sought for expenses incurred by the public health department.

The trial was ordered after the Ramoses failed to live up to an agreement last fall to empty five of the eight buildings there of tenants due to the failure to connect the property’s sewer and septic system legally.

Johnson, who said he had worked on the complex’s sewage treatment facilities since the 1980s when it had another owner, said the equipment is in bad shape.

Johnson said when he inspected the sewer system, he noticed the ground was saturated with sewage, and equipment was missing or not working on several systems serving the apartment complex.

“Basically the system needed a complete overhaul,” he said of units that served two apartment buildings, adding that the system that serves buildings seven and eight “are non-functioning and in violation of every health code I’m aware of.

“This is absolutely the worst-case scenario because they’re not even sort of working.”

Johnson said when he saw the children running through the raw sewage, “I remember thinking, ‘Wow! They need to get out of that.’”

Cherry Orchard has primarily been rented to migrant workers.

Suzanne Lino, migrant student advocate for the Regional Office of Education, provided documents showing that “a little under 50 children” had lived at Cherry Orchard last summer.

“I believe it is relevant that the defendants have known there’s been a sewage problem for some time, and yet they still rented to families with children,” Papavasiliou said.

Jeff Blackford, program coordinator for the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District, testified the department received the initial complaint about untreated sewage at Cherry Orchard in 2007.

He said he has spoken with the Ramoses several times about the sewage problems, and he believed they understood the findings of inspections. (Eduardo Ramos has a limited ability to understand English. An interpreter was provided for him at trial.)

Blackford said at least one contractor provided a cost estimate to repair the sewage problems. Instead, Blackford said, the Ramoses attempted to fix the problems themselves, which is a state violation.

Blackford said effluent is flowing from the apartment complex into a field tile, which dumps raw sewage into a nearby creek. Among the problems caused by untreated sewage, he said, are the transfer of pathogens, bacteria, ecoli, salmonella, cholera and parasites.

Service technicians from two other companies also testified that they had inspected the site and found the sewer and septic systems were not functioning.

Eduardo Ramos asked the technicians if they saw raw sewage on top of the ground, and they said they did not. Blackford testified that the Ramoses’ attempt to fix the problems had alleviated sewage atop the ground but did not prevent it from going into the creek.

Robert Lakey, who owns and farms land adjoining the Cherry Orchard property, said he told a previous owner he had no problem with a line from the apartment complex hooking into the tile that drained his farm ground as long as it contained water and not raw sewage, “but that’s not what’s going on now.”

He said he saw raw sewage atop the ground three years ago. “I knew there was no treatment plant west of that broken tile, which made me very suspicious,” Lakey said. “If that sewage gets in the tile line and plugs that up I lose all my drainage on my farm.” He said he was also concerned about the health factors.

The state also contends the Ramoses continue to rent out the apartments despite the agreement not to do so. County health officials and other agencies took steps to find new homes for tenants earlier this year, only to have the Ramoses apparently rent to other tenants later.

Bernard Ramos also told Kennedy that he is no longer affiliated with Cherry Orchard.

The Ramoses also contend that they did not receive a list of witnesses until two days before the trial. Papavasiliou, however, produced evidence that the list of witnesses was received by the Ramoses via certified mail the last week of March.

¨ Copyright 2011 CU-CitizenAccess.