Under-reporting suspected in South County sewage spill
December 24, 2010
Officials at the San Luis Obispo South County Sanitation District (SSLOCSD) allegedly under-reported the amount of raw sewage recently spilled during heavy December rainstorms in an effort to protect an agency already being accused of firing whistleblowers.
County public health officials voiced their frustration with the failure to provide an estimate in a timely manner.
“Of all the spills we have had this has been the toughest to get an estimate,” said Curtis Batson, director of San Luis Obispo County Environmental Health. “It has been frustrating. We seem to have a lot of sewage releases.”
On December 18, a sewage spill of between 110,000 gallons to approximately one million gallons occurred when the influent pumps at the plant failed. Critics contend the failure could have been avoided if the plant had repaired a failing electrical system.
“Sewer lines are backed up and sewage is bubbling out of manhole covers,” said John Wallace, the district’s administrator of the plant that serves the residents of the Oceano Community Service District, Arroyo Grande and Grover Beach. “Everything that comes into the plant is being treated.”
However, with the pumps down, sewage was not entering the plant’s sanitation system.
Staff at the plant used the sewage flow rate at the time of the failure and determined that during the shutdown, about an hour and a half, approximately one million gallons of raw sewage was spilled into the community and local waterways.
Under pressure from the health department to follow legal requirements and provide the public with the amount of sewage spilled, Wallace reported 110,000 gallons. Wallace elected to ignore plant staff estimates and instead have his staff, at his privately-owned engineering firm, the Wallace Group, determine the amount of sewage spilled.
Wallace Group staff used data including the height of manhole covers, plant storage capacity and eye witness interviews to determine that the spill was limited to 110,000 gallons of raw sewage.
The state water board can level fines of up to $10 a gallon for sanitation plant sewage spills.
The recent sewage spill is another in a long list of problems that have been dogging the plant including a notice of violation from state regulators and law suits for terminating whistleblowers.
Over the past few years, former shift supervisor Scott Mascolo reported incidents of suspected misuse of public funds and problems with the plant complying to safety and health requirements to several government agencies.
In February, Wallace handed Mascolo a notice of intent to reprimand which claimed Mascolo had thrown a wrench at an employee and called another employee a foul name. Mascolo went out on paid administrative leave while mediator Craig McCollum conducted an evidentiary hearing.
From 1988 through 1998, before Mascolo went to work for the SSLOCSD, he worked as a waste water operator for Pismo Beach. His former supervisor, Dan Daniels, contends Mascolo does not have an anger problem and said his former charge was very ethical and passionate about following rules and regulations.
Both employees who Mascolo allegedly accosted refuted Wallace’s claims. In August, following the hearing, the district was ordered to reinstate Mascolo to his former position and pay rate because their allegations were unfounded.
The district refused to comply and filed a new allegation, claiming that Mascolo had filed a false police report regarding misuse of public funds.
On Aug. 6, 2009, Trinidad Rodriquez, a plant employee, sold scrap metal belonging to the plant for $676 with the approval of his supervisor, Jeff Appleton.
“I hereby agree that I am the lawful owner of the above material and that it is free and clear of all encumbrances and that I have been paid in full,” the receipt says above Rodriquez’s signature.
Mascolo told sheriff deputy Mark Gunter that the plant had a policy of allowing funds from scrap sold for $100 or less to be placed in an employee barbecue fund. And that receipt of monies larger than that was to be put back in the district’s general fund.
“Wallace was able to confirm that it was the district’s policy until recently for money received from recycling metals from the district to be placed in the employee’s BBQ fund,” according to Gunter’s report which said he found the allegations unfounded.
When interviewed under oath, Gunter admitted that he did not look into or know laws about theft of public funds.
Thomas Giovacchini, Mascolo’s attorney, filed a petition to force the district to comply with the evidentiary hearing and put Mascolo back to work. Mike Seitz, the Wallace Group and the SSLOCSD’s attorney, argued that the court wasn’t the appropriate venue and that Mascolo should be required to have a fourth Skelly Hearing.
On Tuesday, San Luis Obispo County Superior Court Judge Charles Crandall set a hearing for February 24 to determine jurisdiction. On Wednesday, the district gave Mascola a notice of termination.
For more than a year, several employees of the district contend Wallace has been funneling thousands of dollars to his privately owned engineering company while concealing environmental violations and plant inadequacies.
Employees contend that the recent spill could have been avoided if the electrical system had been repaired. For more than four years, plant staff and management have been aware that the electrical system at the plant was in dire need of an upgrade.
The district paid the Wallace Group to engineer an electrical system upgrade. And while the Wallace Group has financially benefited from their engineering work, other than replacing broken electrical lines, the project was never started.
Several plant staffers have said they worry they will be terminated for speaking out about problems at the plant.
Critics contend Wallace has been funneling thousands of dollars to his private engineering company while concealing environmental violations at the plant. The district pays the Wallace Group approximately $80,000 a month for its services.
Earlier this year, former lab technician Devina Douglas’ complaints to the water board resulted in the plant receiving a notice of violation that included allegations that the plant discharged dirty water into the Pacific Ocean.
In September, Wallace asked the district board to eliminate Douglas’ lab technician position, and contract with an outside laboratory to handle the bulk of its wastewater testing in order to allegedly cut costs. The three person board voted unanimously to outsource testing.
However, during the month of November the district paid Abalone Coast, an independent lab, $4,551, which is about $300 more than Douglas’ pay was at the time of her termination.
In addition, state regulators have determined that the district employees Wallace assigned to do the testing at the plant were unqualified.
The California Department of Public Health Environmental Laboratory Accreditation Program (ELAP) evaluates and provides accreditation of laboratories to ensure that data testing meets the requirements of the state’s drinking water, wastewater, shellfish and hazardous waste programs.
Early last week, ELAP ordered the plant to cease all regulatory testing until all issues related to laboratory director qualifications were resolved. Regulators are allowing Abalone Coast to do testing.
As of last Thursday, taxpayers are now covering the additional cost of having a lab analyst from Abalone Labs come to the plant to perform regulatory testing which is expected to increase the cost substantially over what the district had been paying Douglas.
Meanwhile, local beaches remain closed. On Monday, public health officials plan to test local waters for contamination.