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.



  1. A. Newman says:

    the rumor i’ve heard is that way before any claims of whistleblowing were made both the shift supervisor and the lab ;tech were disciplined for sexual activity on the job.

    can anybody confirm or deny this? if it’s true it would seem to put quite a different spin on their “whistleblowing”, wouldn’t it?

    (6) 12 Total Votes - 9 up - 3 down
    • undertow says:

      It was investigated and found false along with other allegations made against the two. After the evidentiary hearing found nothing, and the District produced no witnesses, a court order was then issued by a District designated Hearing officer to reinstate the Shift Supervisor yet this was never upheld placing the District in violation of a court order and violation of their own policies. Interesting how the District never investigated any of the lab tech, Shift supervisors or others accusations like work computers being used for porno, firearms at the plant used to kill Sea gulls for sport one of the staff living at the plant using a public facility for personal gains and a multitude of other illegal activity witnessed by several of the staff. There was however an investigation into Appleton s illegal directives to other staff by a District hired investigator (fox guarding the hen house) ,however the results were never released,hum..wonder why? Unfortunately for them the State investigation found illegal activity,fraud and deception in reporting or otherwise. This resulted in the NOV along with removing Appleton’s certification, yet rumors are he’s still the boss but out on long term medical leave,could it be stress leave? I wonder why?. Kinda makes one wonder who’s full of crap, the plant or Wallace, Appleton and Seitz.

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

      Riiiiight. That’s got to be it. …Instead of firing them for that, a lawful termination, the District decided to embroil themselves in more melodrama? Get a clue, Newman — or should I say Wallace, or maybe even Appleton — the facts support these two being upstanding employees. Even if there was any truth to that rumor it doesn’t give the District the ability to terminate them for other reasons. The District’s reasons for letting Douglas go were strictly “financial.” The purported reasons for letting Mascola go are openly that he dared to report missing money and likely embezzlement.
      Stop spreading lies, Newman.

      (0) 6 Total Votes - 3 up - 3 down
      • kitten says:

        Mascolo reported missing money and embezzlement? To whom, the SLO Sheriff’s Dept? hahahahahahaha Like those guys are going to worry about a few bucks of tax payer money.
        Why aren’t all you people calling the DA’s office? Where is the pressure on the DA to investigate? Or is the DA just as crooked as Wallace? Rumor has it that Wallace and Shea go WAY back. More political cronyism? When did SLO turn into Chicago?

        (-2) 4 Total Votes - 1 up - 3 down
    • MasterOfPuppets says:

      Lets continue to dig a little deeper in the rumor mill. There has been rumors afloat that Casandra Appleton, the wife of plant superintendent Jeff Appleton has filed 3 domestic violence complaints with the county sheriff’s department over the last 5 years, in fear of Jeff’s uncontrollable anger towards their two children and herself.

      can anyone confirm or deny this?

      (-3) 5 Total Votes - 1 up - 4 down
      • undertow says:

        Fact: Appleton’s got his backside kicked by a CHP officer years ago after mouthing off to him, Appleton later sued the CHP and unfortunately won. It would seem if a person is wiling to take on a cop, guess the sky’s the limit. Several reliable sources who work a particular government facility we wont name, allege Appleton was escorted out of a recent job interview because of his hostility attitude and inability to control his emotions, he was told to never return or else.

        (-4) 6 Total Votes - 1 up - 5 down
  2. kitten says:

    A reminder folks, This Wed evening @ 6:00pm at the OCSD meeting the SSLOCSD Board meeting will be held. The last anticipated meeting was canceled and no “special meeting” was held. With any luck some of the good folks from tour community and some member’s of the Surfriders will make their presence known and take the opportunity to make a similar request to the three Board members at once. For those who cannot attend stay tuned for a report.

    Oceano Water Quality
    February 11, 2011

    Last night (Tuesday, February 8th), our Surfrider Foundation, SLOCounty chapter Chair (Jeff Pienak), our chapter Education Coordinator (Jennifer Joswiak), and myself (chapter Volunteer Coordinator and AG resident) made public comments at the AG city council meeting. In my statement, I cited information from Cynthia Lambert’s Tribune article “Sewer plant operator in hot water” and then I made this statement from our executive committee to the city council:

    Because of the institutional nature of the malfeasances associated with the water quality monitoring and reporting for the South SLO County treatment plant, to which the Wallace Group is tied via its contracted role in monitoring and reporting, we request that the council consider and adopt a resolution at the next council meeting calling for investigation into the Wallace Group’s involvement in malfeasances, and that the resolution direct Mayor Ferrara, as the appointed representative of the City of Arroyo Grande to the South SLO County CSD, to bring forward a similar resolution to the South SLO County CSD board of directors on behalf of the City of Arroyo Grande.

    Our chapter will be making similar public comment at the next Grover Beach city council meeting (February 22).

    (2) 2 Total Votes - 2 up - 0 down
  3. undertow says:

    Well what a surprise, first possible Board meeting after Appleton is served disciplinary actions from the State of California, confirming ALL the accusations the now fired lab tech and soon to be fired Shift Supervisor brought to Wallace’s attention almost 2 years ago, and your so called public servants acting in YOUR best interest are doing their best to hide the next meeting from you. Because no meeting time was posted 72 hours in advance pursuant to the law this undoubtedly means they will hold a “special” meeting as suspected only requiring 24 hours notice to prevent you from being able to corner the cowards and force them to resign.
    When will this circus come to an end?

    (4) 6 Total Votes - 5 up - 1 down

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