Sanitation district discharging fecal matter into the ocean
October 5, 2012
By KAREN VELIE
Shortly after a hearing that determined the South San Luis Obispo County Sanitation District had to pay a $1.1 million fine for spilling sewage into the environment, water board prosecutors said the district is facing further fines for again violating its permit requirements.
On Sept. 28, plant employees sent a sample of effluent being released into the Pacific Ocean to a lab which reported it had a fecal coliform content of 50,000 MPN (most probable number of fecal coliform per ml). Anything over 2,200 violates the district’s operating permit and requires a mandatory penalty.
Last week’s event was the second time in less than 90 days that effluent testing showed fecal coliform levels at more than 30,000 per MPN.
Surfing and swimming in waters with high levels of fecal coliform increases the chance of developing illness from bacteria entering the body through the mouth, nose, ears or cuts in the skin. Diseases and illnesses caused by contact with water high in fecal coliform counts include pneumonia, hepatitis, gastroenteritis, dysentery and ear infections.
In the past, high coliform levels at the plant have primarily been blamed on issues with chlorination equipment malfunctioning. However, in this case, the levels of chlorine residue in the sample were unusually high, which means that the effluent contained fecal chunks the chemical was unable to penetrate.
On Wednesday, the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board determined that a 2010 raw sewage spill in Oceano was due to careless and improper maintenance at the plant. At the end of the hearing, water board prosecutor Julie Macedo said that while an investigation into last week’s violation was being launched, the board did not consider it when rendering their decision.
“This information was not considered by the board when making its decision,” Macedo said.
Former sanitation plant employees Devina Douglas and Scott Mascolo said in 2010 a plant supervisor instructed staff to manipulate effluent release numbers by dumping bad samples or testing incorrectly in order to keep the public from knowing the aging plant was in need of a complete upgrade.
“In the past, the plant only tested to 1,600 MPN though the permit said they had to test to 16,000 MPN,” Mascolo said. “Jeff Appleton, the former plant superintendent, told me it gave us wiggle room because if you didn’t perform the test correctly it couldn’t be used to give an accurate number. And you would just do the test the next day because it didn’t have to be tested every day then.”
After discovering the employees had filed regulatory complaints, plant administrators terminated both Douglas and Mascolo. Both have filed suits for wrongful termination. Douglas received a settlement while Mascolo’s case continues to make its way through the system.
Mascolo contends that John Wallace, the chief administrator of the district that provides sewer services to Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach and the unincorporated town of Oceano, has been funneling thousands of dollars to an engineering company he owns while concealing environmental violations.
Wallace is the owner and president of the Wallace Group, a private engineering consulting firm located in San Luis Obispo, that the district pays between $50,000 and $80,000 a month for engineering, consulting and administrative work.