Oceano sewage spill much larger than originally reported
January 29, 2011
Documents attached to emails obtained by CalCoastNews indicate that a sewage spill last December dumped 3 million gallons of raw sewage into Oceano neighborhoods, beaches and the Pacific Ocean, more than 30 times what was originally reported. [PDF]
On December 19, storm water flowed through electrical conduits at the San Luis Obispo South County Sanitation District into pump motors which shorted out the plant’s electrical system, shutting down the plant’s intake pumps. The district serves the residents of the Oceano Community Service District, Arroyo Grande and Grover Beach.
Shortly after the spill, district administrator John Wallace reported to health officials that the spill dumped 110,000 gallons of sewage into the community. A few weeks later, he estimated the spill at 384,000 gallons.
However, a series of emails between Wallace, Wallace Group staff and sanitation plant manager Jeff Appleton reveal that those involved in calculating the amount of sewage spilled argued amongst themselves on how many gallons they should report and who would sign state-mandated accountings.
In a timeline and spill report attached to an email from Appleton to Wallace, Appleton says he determined the plant’s electrical failure caused a spill of 3 million gallons of sewage. A graph from the plant during the incident appears to support his estimation.
Wallace Group staff made some changes to Appleton’s computations, shown in blue ink, which lowered the spill amount from 3 million to 2,493,757 gallons of raw sewage.
A few days later, Wallace told Appleton that Wallace Group staff had reevaluated the spill amount using an approach that massively lowered the amount of gallons that Wallace wanted to be reported.
Wallace wrote in a December 23 email to Appleton, “As we discussed, our staff evaluated the potential quantity of influent that was spilled using incident data recorded during the event, plant flow data, an analysis of the hydraulic grade in the trunk and collection system, trunk and collection system storage capacity, manhole rim elevations, weather data, as well as standardized industry calculations to arrive at an initial estimated volume of 110,000 gal of overflow from various upstream manholes.
“These calculations remain plausible given interviews with the public, eyewitnesses of the overflow events in a number the affected areas, as well as staff from Oceano and the district that responded to the overflow event,” Wallace added.
Wallace insisted that Appleton use the estimating methods and numbers provided by Wallace Groups engineers, none of whom are qualified to run the plant or submit spill reports to regulators.
“You voiced a concern that the volume that engineering staff calculated was too low based upon your 25 years of experience and expressed that you could not submit the draft report to CIWQS (state reporting system) for the lower quantity but preferred that, if the lower amount was used, then I as the LRO (lead responsible officer) would need to submit the report,” Wallace says in the email to Appleton. “As you are the District’s CPO (chief plant operator), our calculations are prepared to provide backup information for you in support of your reporting requirements for this event.”
A week later, in another email, Appleton told Wallace that both he and the plant’s shift supervisor, Trini Rodriquez, felt uncomfortable signing the plant’s November required regulatory reports.
For more than a year, staff at the plant said they repeatedly voiced their concerns that the plant’s antiquated electrical system could lead to an environmental disaster–concerns they claim Wallace ignored.
Several plant staffers said they were not permitted to call in an electrician without either Wallace or staff at the Wallace Group’s approval.
The state water board can level fines of up to $10 a gallon for sanitation plant sewage spills as well as financial penalties for failing to comply to testing and management requirements of the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB).
For example, the SWRCB recently proposed fines [PDF] against Eco Resources Inc., operators of the San Simeon Service District Wastewater Treatment Plant and former operators of the Cypress Ridge Wastewater Treatment Plant, for among other infractions failing to properly test, monitor and report.
After finding themselves in trouble with regulators last year, Eco Resources dropped its name and began operating under its parent company’s name, Southwest Water.
The state’s settlement agreement asks Eco Resources Inc. to pay more than $26 million in penalties for environmental infractions, 1.5 million of which is for failures in San Simeon and Arroyo Grande.
Wallace Group designed the sewer distribution plan at Cypress Ridge, a residential community in Arroyo Grande.
The recent sewage spill in Oceano is another in a long list of problems that have dogged the plant, including a notice of violation from state regulators, law suits for allegedly terminating whistleblowers and a recent disciplinary action by the state against Appleton for instructing staff to manipulate effluent release numbers in order to make it appear the plant was operating in compliance with pollution and discharge requirements.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that between 1.8 million and 3.5 million people a year become sick from swimming in waters contaminated by sewer system spills.