Carol and Don Herron are no longer shocked when their Westchester home rumbles beneath their feet every 20 minutes or so. They expect the wooden shutters on the living room windows to clatter and the delicate china on the dining room wall to clang.
But they're not happy about it.
The Herrons are among 165 Westchester homeowners who live over the North Outflow Replacement Sewer, or NORS, one of the largest and costliest public works projects in Los Angeles history.
The eight-mile-long sewer, which originates in Los Angeles near Rodeo Road and La Cienega Boulevard, will eventually carry 400 million gallons of sewage daily from the San Fernando Valley to the Hyperion sewage treatment plant south of Los Angeles International Airport.
The sewer will take the place of a deteriorating, 65-year-old line that experts say is incapable of handling the city's growing needs. Major storms sometimes require the release of partially treated sewage into Ballona Creek and Santa Monica Bay.
Since the end of last summer, work crews have been carving out a 14-foot tunnel for the new sewer beneath the airport and Westchester, passing just 30 feet under some homes.
"It jolts me out of my sleep, like an earthquake beneath my bed," said Carol Herron.
Work on the tunnel lasts from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., Monday through Saturday. The noise and vibrations caused by trainloads of dirt traveling inside it can be heard on the surface as far as 150 feet away.
"My kids can't fall asleep at night. I've stopped setting my alarm clock because the trains wake me up every morning. It's completely disrupted my life," Herron said.
Herron and other residents complain that, aside from disturbing their home lives, the construction is damaging their property.
Several say that hairline fractures in walls, ceilings and driveways have expanded as a result of the work and that slopes in the hilly community are beginning to settle. Residents also are fearful that their property values will plummet as a consequence of the sewer.
"Would you buy a home if you knew that the biggest sewer in Los Angeles was sitting underneath it," asked Marilyn Segal, one of the more outspoken critics of the project.
There have been problems in other locations as well. The tunneling caused six sinkholes on the grounds of the airport last October when work crews ran into an unstable segment of earth. And tunneling beneath the northern section of the project caused the foundation of one home to settle about an inch.
Ralph Kennedy, the city's chief deputy engineer, said that project engineers may have miscalculated the amount of noise and disruption that the $115-million project would cause in the Westchester neighborhoods. Project managers believed that residents would not be affected once the tunneling machinery had passed beneath their homes, he said.
Kennedy and others are hopeful that the worst is over. Tunneling beneath the Westchester area is supposed to be wrapped up this week. A final, two-mile stretch will be carved out during the next six months beneath mostly open space in Baldwin Hills and at West Los Angeles College.
Well before construction began more than a year ago, the city launched a full-scale community relations campaign to deal with potential problems.
Judy Nutter, a field deputy for City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, and other community relations representatives say the city has done all that it can to to help the residents cope with the construction.
The city distributes a monthly newsletter to residents with construction updates, holds monthly meetings and has set up a special hot line for emergencies.
After complaints from residents in mid-March, work crews reduced their 24-hour work schedule to 16 hours a day. Also, the city spent more than $10,000 to house about two dozen families in a local hotel during a particularly loud period of tunneling in March. A security guard was placed on streets where homes had been temporarily vacated. Every homeowner was paid $500 for acquisition of the easement beneath the homes. "We have tried to be as forthcoming as possible, to make sure that every property owner has their concerns addressed," Nutter said. "I think they understand that this project must go forward, even though it is tiresome." Nutter noted that project engineers have met personally with residents to monitor noise and cracks in foundations.
But some residents say the city has not gone far enough in compensating them for damages to their property and for the nuisance the work has caused.
Segal, the Westchester homeowner, said she is considering filing a civil lawsuit against the city for the problems that she and others have encountered. City officials said additional compensation may be granted in special cases if excessive damage to homes is found.
Perhaps the only thing the city and many of the residents do agree on is the fact that the sewer is desperately needed.