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.



  1. standup says:

    This is so sad that us taxpayers have to support the filth that Wallace brings. How much kickback is Wallace Group giving to the board members? Furthermore, his terminating of employees seems to coincide with their perceived dishonesty. I would say Wallace lied just a little about the past spills so shouldn’t he be gone too? Be lucky mister I don’t live in your district. People, stand up and demand he be fired! It seems like corrupt gov’t officials is a plague in this county. Let’s see, we have a sheriff with a terrible track record, city manager of SLO that won’t respond about the mower that was basically stolen from the public, Bruce White in the BOS stepping down due to his illegalities, the city of Atascadero with the City manager and community development director aiding Kelly Gearhart’s rip off scam. Many of these officials are overpaid and are continuing to give it to us. May they rot in hell.

    (32) 32 Total Votes - 32 up - 0 down
    • darwin_is_rolling_over says:

      You cant believe everything you read you know … especially on this website. It is too easy to look at things from an elevation of 15 feet instead of 10,000. Get the whole picture.

      (-41) 53 Total Votes - 6 up - 47 down
      • kitten says:

        Fact is everything about this story and this spill is true. I’ll give you a view from 2 feet hows that. fact is the Wallace group has yet to successfully make any of the projects they ramrod work correctly and refuse to accept responsibility to correct the flaws,undisputed, ask the plants staff. Id be glad to provide a detailed list of this for the taxpayers to review. This spill was created by the negligence of a long ago realized problem related to plant being in a flood plain. After the San Simeon earthquake the Wallace group began engineering a series of repairs designed to address the sinking ground around the headworks, a new higher flood wall and gate system, a stand by pump capable of handling the plants flow in a Lever break or extreme rain event or other power robbing disaster like the quake, it all looked good without a written plan or actually addressing 100% of the problem
        The quake exposed many electrical issues and damaged areas so Wallace embarked on a multi year long engineering project designed to provide a reconductoring project that to date has done nothing to repair the electrical system, however the cost of the project has doubled due the the Wallace group dragging their feet. You commented the staff was busy sitting on their butts eating Christmas cookies when the fact is the plants actual staff, not Wallace’s multi disciplined paper pushers he refers to as “staff” bust their behinds to prevent this type of disaster from ever happening. They have brought the issue to Wallace’s staff repeatedly, will we do in a flood and what about these conduits into sub grade electrical pull boxes pump rooms? What if they fill with water and flood or short out a pump? Ignoring the multiple warnings this is what caused the spill, standing water around the headworks filled the pull boxes, the water then migrated through the conduits that ran to the influent pumps knocking out the system. Remember a ship is only as good as its captain. Once upon a time the former plant super ran the ship quite well and was aggressive in taking on these types of repairs in house repairs without years of wasted engineering studies and thrived on getting things done fast. Unfortunately the replacement CPO is less motivated and has been pushed into a corner and threatened with his lively hood if he disputes anything Wallace does. He has become nothing more than a yes man in most of the staff eyes. Afraid to tie his own shoes without Wallace’s approval and an engineering study the CPO refuses responsibility for anything and simply says “im not the Administrator police” He refuses to take a position of a public servant looking out for public money being spent responsibly, but instead fingers those who care while he sits back collects his paycheck allowing the District administrators personal company to suck the pot dry. I ask you Darwin, show us a plant that flows are only 3MGD with a staff of 8, yet has 26 engineers on its books as “staff” and charge the public in upwards of $1.000.000 annually to provide a service the public can do without. Any plant is capable of being run safely and competently with its trained operators, it dosent need 26 engineers,consultants, Jr drafts persons, paper jockeys etc,etc all of whom are not legally permitted to so much as touch a valve because they have no license to do this under law, yet the feel they are thee most critical part of the process. If you believe this to be false go look for yourself at the SSLOCSD’s website under agenda’s and see the charges, read the reports from a man who claims he has no involvement in what his own companies staff does in the way of engineering at the San Dist because of Conflict of interest issues. Who is responsible then if not Wallace? This county deserves better and so do the poor folks who homes are now saturated with flood waters and sewage in Oceano.

        (41) 45 Total Votes - 43 up - 2 down
        • kitten says:

          Those questioning the incompetence of the Wallace group, the CPO and the validity of the information above related to the recent sewage spill can now refer to the sslocsd website and view the board and agenda for the board meeting to be held 1-5-11. It clearly makes reference to the loss of power because of water filled conduits resulting in a shorted electrical system of the plants influent pumps. Seriously people…. you were screwed out of hundreds of thousands of dollars in engineering fees equipment and plant upgrades yet they allowed the simplest of in your face potential electrical system killers to go unaddressed even after plant staff made repeated cries to correct the problem. Visit the plant, its a public facility folks ,look at the massive puddle and lack of drainage around the Wallace group engineered duck pond now surrounding the head works, ask to see the staff’s rubber duck they jokingly placed into Wallace’s engineered and construction managed pond while they tried to make light of a another mess they’d have to deal with come winter. The rainy season just started, you ready for round #2 in you home? demand better because you deserve it. I urge you to attend the upcoming SSLOCSD Board meeting to be held 1-05-11 at 6:00pm @ the OCSD office on Front street, join in the fight to force Wallace to be held accountable for the clean up cost associated with his mess in your home and at the plant, and not the tax payer funded emergency money Ferrara’s applying for to cover his buddies ass.

          (4) 4 Total Votes - 4 up - 0 down
    • RU4Real says:

      standup, Don’t forget that the SLO DA’s office is every bit as corrupt as John Wallace & Mike Seitz. You won’t get help from the DA or the Grand Jury. Maybe you need to contact John Chiang’s office. He’s big on looking into the corruption of this County & believe me, there’s PLENTY to look into!

      (18) 24 Total Votes - 21 up - 3 down
      • standup says:

        You’re probably right regarding the DA but I can’t quite agree because I don’t actually know. I had a bird whisper in my ear that the FBI is close to bringing down the house in A-town the first of the month. We will see.

        (14) 16 Total Votes - 15 up - 1 down
  2. SLOChuck says:

    Something is fishy down there. This infuriates me that our tax money is going to line Wallace’s pocket hen they’ve just put someone out of work. Wallace should be ashamed of himself, that is, if he had any scruples at all.
    The further fact that they are now trying to get rid of Mascola for reporting the theft of public monies disgusts me. I sincerely hope the District Attorney is investigating these people. I have heard from many members of the community in this service area and people’s homes were affected by this spill. Can you imagine having your house flooded with sewage? This time Wallace had gone too far! Laying off one (of 8) employees, firing another (who just happen to be the two people reporting government malfeasance,) and now screwing up the electric system on a vital piece of equipment which ultimately (if this article is correct,) that ruining people’s houses right before the holidays.
    Shame on you, Jon Wallace!!!

    (22) 32 Total Votes - 27 up - 5 down
  3. Very Interesting! How did this water leave State Highway 1 to flood the west side of Oceano?

    Could it be the new sewer line installed at thirteenth and Paso Robles Streets?
    Could it be the new Caltrans enlarged drainage inlet?
    Could it be the 10 trees, that OCSD cut down in 2010?

    The public should view the website http://www.californiagovernorjerrybrown.com

    Who is responsible for this storm water? Exhibit # 1756 Are three letters written by the Oceano Community Service District April 21, 1983 to San Luis Obispo County John Wallace. Pismo Oceano Vegetable Exchange, Dennis Donovan. Southern Pacific Land Company, John Sherman, explaining the OCSD Construction process of their well # 8 and their intended use of the storm water drainage channel.

    Exhibit # 1773 January 10, 1985 Department of Transportation Memorandum Document showing drainage concerns of Caltrans going back to 1974. A $5,00.00 Contributions from the Oceano Community Service District for their new Fire Station Construction drainage!

    Exhibit # 1757 March 13, 1985 The Oceano Community Service District signed contract agreement with Caltrans allowing for the OCSD new Construction/Fire Station drainage to enter State Highway 1 and go into the Caltrans drainage inlet leading into Railroad culvert! March 14, 1985 Oceano Community Service District minute order regarding Caltrans agreement with OCSD # 05A239 signed by Gina Davis Deputy Secretary to the Board. March 13, 1985 OCSD meeting minutes with John Wallace showing the $5,000.0 OCSD contribution to Caltrans drainage of State Highway 1 per signed Caltrans OCSD agreement!

    Exhibit # 1875 March 27, 1985 County of San Luis Obispo letter requiring requiring Pismo Oceano Vegetable Exchange to raise the Outlet of the storm water retention pond on Southern Pacific Railroad property. May 22, 1985 County of San Luis Obispo Building Permits for POVE Construction after 1977 Construction. Included is a OCSD letter to the County Of San Luis Obispo December 13, 1984 and a letter from the Counties Chief Building inspector John P. Little dated December 26, 1984.

    Exhibit # 1774 April 4, 1985 Department of Transportation (Caltrans) Fully Executed Copy of Cooperative Agreement between the State and the Oceano Community Service District, addressed to then General Manager Richard C. Hill.

    Exhibit # 1758 September 11, 1985 Are OCSD meeting minutes showing drainage changes to the Oceano Communities storm water drainage system with the discharge of Well # 8 water onto County of San Luis Obispo property. OCSD mentions prior recommendations from Montgomery Engineers’ before John Wallace became the OCSD District Engineer after leaving the County of San Luis Obispo.

    Exhibit # 1759 February 27, 1986 Letter by John L. Wallace Consulting Civil Engineers to the County of San Luis Obispo Glenn Priddy for drainage coming off of State Highway 1 onto County of San Luis Obispo Airport “Pacific Place” property going into the Oceano Lagoon and then into the Pacific Ocean. “Culvert that crosses the Railroad tracks on front Street near the railroad station” OCSD new at this time that State Highway 1 Drainage was for storm drainage, rather then their Well # 8 water

    Exhibit # 1790 September 25, 1987 Letter By Gary Simms, from the Department of Transportation to the County of San Luis Obispo Glenn Priddy, showing that the OCSD and State drainage at this time could be fixed for only $43,295.00. The County of San Luis Obispo portion of this would be $9,310.00 and the Railroad/POVE portion would be $15,070.00. The Department of Transportation does not mention the Railroad or County in their 1985 $5,000.00 agreements with the Oceano Community.

    Exhibit # 1791 October 15, 1987 from OCSD to the Department of Transportation per their 1985 $5,000.00 signed agreement with Caltrans taking liability for storm water drainage!

    Exhibit # 1792 November 18, 1987 District Agreement No. 05A239 A/1 from the Department of Transportation. November 3, 1987 hand written document attached

    Exhibit # 1793 May 18, 1988 letter to the Department of Transportation from OCSD, Plans for Subject drainage project from 1985 agreement between Caltrans and OCSD.

    Exhibit # 1794 November 30, 1988 is Fred Brebs of the Department of Transportation maintenance log for cleaning cleaning

    Exhibits # 1768 Starting in November 30, 2001 are the OCSD Phil Davis daily logs starting with the OCSD broken Well # 8 Pipe on County and Railroad property in 2001. December 20, 2002 Log, problem as seen in exhibit # 579 withheld from discovery by the County of San Luis Obispo. OCSD abated initial problem with OCSD pipe in culvert plugging debris at entrance to the culvert. Next OCSD problem February 9, 2004 having OCSD employee clean out drainage ditch from debris in ditch. May 19, 2004 OCSD Ditch Cleaning. October 26, 2004 Major flood from debris inside Culvert, that OCSD fixed with sewer cleaner jet. November 4, 2004 OCSD cleaned ditch. December 6, 2004 OCSD pulled leaves and sticks out of the south end of the culvert. December 9, 2004 OCSD finds RR culvert 1/3 plugged. December 10, 2004 OCSD report for culvert cleaning by OCSD after meeting with County Road Department. January 3, 2005 OCSD deals with flooded State Highway. March 23, 2005 OCSD cleans culvert. Tuesday December 18, 2007 OCSD meets with Attorney to talk about culvert before flooding later in the day. Friday January 4, 2008 OCSD Well # 8 has another tree brake their blow-off line in the culvert. Caltrans asks OCSD to pump the POVE pond. January 7, 2008 OCSD repairs their Well # 8 blow off line discharging still into the Railroads culvert.

    Exhibit # 1789 September 15, 1987 Judge Martin J. Tangeman would not allow into evidence. This document shows a conflict between the County of San Luis Obispo, Caltrans and the Oceano Community Service District after the April 4, 1985 Department of Transportation signed agreement taking the OCSD storm water.

    Exhibit # 579 that the County of San Luis Obispo withheld from discovery showing a problems with drainage observed with Caltrans in 2001 raising State Highway 1. One photo provided out of three showing a Union Pacific Railroad Train Wreck and a PVC pipe inside the storm water drainage culvert!

    Exhibit # 9 filed July 24, 2008 after trial showing complaint in exhibit # 579 withheld from Discovery by the County of San Luis Obispo involving Gregg Albright of Caltrans and San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Katch Achadjian!

    (11) 29 Total Votes - 20 up - 9 down
    • darwin_is_rolling_over says:

      Could it be you have too much time on your hands?

      (-4) 24 Total Votes - 10 up - 14 down
      • kitten says:

        Could it be you work for Wallace?

        (10) 24 Total Votes - 17 up - 7 down
        • darwin_is_rolling_over says:

          Actually it could not be. It could be however that I am tired of people slamming engineers when they dont know what they are talking about.

          (-8) 22 Total Votes - 7 up - 15 down
          • kitten says:

            Sounds like your carrying some baggage there Darwin. Nobody is slamming engineers, however the facts are the facts. The one(s) being slammed are so called “public servants” who are not holding up their obligations by misleading the tax payer while spewing lies that their acting in the public’s best interest and saving them money. Sure seems to be a sensitive area for you Darwood, ya sure your not a Wallace group employee…LOL.

            (12) 20 Total Votes - 16 up - 4 down
            • RU4Real says:

              kitten, the big “problem” as I see it, is that unless & until we’re able to get “The County” (yes the SLO BOS) out of “bed” with these corrupt ‘sub contractor/employees’ & other high level management employees in SLO County, we will continue to have all the “foxes in the henhouse”. Get off letters of proof of corruption in this county to John Chiang’s office.

              (9) 13 Total Votes - 11 up - 2 down
              • kitten says:

                That’s apparently what it will take, and were willing to do what it takes to expose the bad and make things right. Guess we better start lookin for a used Armored car to transport the evidence to Mr. Chanig’s office, LOL

                (4) 8 Total Votes - 6 up - 2 down
                • kitten says:

                  Chaing’s office has been contacted and says not our jurisdiction. There has been literally every other agency in the US contacted however so its just a matter of time. Time to stand up people and go to the board meetings every chance you get. The Sanitation Districts is the first and third Wed of every month, you can also visit the website @ sslocsd and click the “agendas” for the latest lies.
                  Remember the squeeky wheel gets the grease so start squeekin.
                  If anybody is interested in forming a community activist group to take a stand count us in, we have plenty to share.

                  (4) 4 Total Votes - 4 up - 0 down
              • ————As stated by Caltrans and the County of San Luis Obispo!

                Exhibit # 1785 May 14, 1987 “We decided that there were two basic solutions to the problem. They are:” “# 2 Construct a detention or retention basin above the Railroad on their property and leave the existing culvert as is.”

                “Tim Smith and Glenn Priddy we discussed the flooding problems that would be created by passing the water under the railroad through a new culvert. That would require the County buy an easement south and west of the railroad to maintain a channel to protect the residences in the low lands.”

                If a retention or detention pond of sufficient size could be constructed next to the highway on railroad property the existing culvert may work with a few changes such as lowering the outlet of the POVE pond. This Idea would protect the downstream people from flooding. One problem with the retention pond would be the fact that the existing culvert’s flow line is too high to drain the pond. There-fore most of the pond water would never drain through.”

                (4) 8 Total Votes - 6 up - 2 down
            • darwin_is_rolling_over says:

              Very cute little Kitten. I actually work for a firm in direct competition with Wallace. Heck, I would love to have a 1/4 of his contracts. But that doesnt change the fact that this has turned into a Kangaroo Court with a definite prejudgment of the “Facts”. You are all on a witch hunt and Wallace is your man. I guess I should be glad it is his firm not mine.

              I will say this, John Wallace runs one of the largest firms in our area. He runs the ONLY local firm with the expertise required to perform this kind of work. I also know that unless you are personally involved in each of these examples, you are probably not well enough informed to figure out what is really going on. You are no different than a preacher pulling text from the bible to mangle it into whatever you want it to say.

              Anyone who would suggest the BOS is in bed with the engineers and developers, does not know our current BOS. In fact, potential clients and investors in our community are running from our county because of the unpredictability of the board. The current staff, PC and BOS of the county are slowly but surely putting each of our local engineering firms out of business. THAT is a fact. Soon you will have only LA and SF based firms to do our work. Firms that dont give a crap about how the projects turn out because they dont live here.

              So no, I do not have baggage, but more like bruises from the constant finger pointing of the ignorance at large.

              I encourage you all to send your “proof” to the AG or anyone else. Your mis-drawn conclusions would soon be put to rest.

              (1) 15 Total Votes - 8 up - 7 down
          • willie says:

            Actually darwin, I have an engineering background and slammed them!!!

            (1) 1 Total Votes - 1 up - 0 down

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