Sewage plant continues to violate environmental requirements
August 9, 2011
South San Luis Obispo County’s aging sewer plant continues to release inadequately treated sewage into the Pacific Ocean, according to the plant’s records.
Specifically, in July, the plant was in violation of biological oxygen demand (BOD) standards it is required to meet. BOD has traditionally been used to measure the amount of solids such as feces and rotting foods in treated wastewater released from sewage plants to surface waters or streams.
The cleaner the effluent, the lower the BOD number.
Sewage effluent high in BOD can deplete oxygen in receiving waters, killing fish and changing the ecosystem.
Groups such as the San Luis Obispo Surfrider Foundation question the effect the poorly treated sewage is having on swimmers and surfers in Pismo Beach.
Because the south county plant is outdated, it is allowed a monthly average of no more than 40 mgl BOD before it is in violation of its permit. Exceeding BOD limit exposes the plant and the rate payers to fines from state regulators.
In comparison, the more modern San Luis Obispo city wastewater plant releases treated sewage at about 1 mgl BOD, or within drinking water standards. Regulatory agencies require modern facilities to keep their BOD in the single digits.
In July, the South County plant violated its 40 mgl BOD limit on ten days with a max result of almost 80 mgl BOD on July 20, according to a graph on the plant’s website.
In 2010, several former South County Sanitation District employees accused administrator John Wallace of funneling thousands of dollars to a private engineering company he owns while concealing environmental violations at the plant. Monies Wallace spent on repairing rather than replacing the outdated facility.
In June, the San Luis Obispo County Grand Jury validated allegations that Wallace as the plant administrator had been funneling millions of dollars to his private engineering company without proper oversight and that a conflict of interest exists because Wallace is the plant administrator while his firm retains the engineering contract
The Grand Jury recommends that the district board consider hiring independent management and that it evaluate and compare organizational and operational alternatives for the district.
“The Grand Jury finds the district in a state of denial regarding the conflict of interest and, as a result, the district has taken no effective steps to mitigate the conflict,” the report says. “The Grand Jury concludes that, as a result, the board and the district are exposed to a number of financial, legal and public trust issues.”
Meanwhile, the sanitation district, which provides sewer services to Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach and the unincorporated town of Oceano, has come under fire for violating numerous state and federal environmental requirements. Under Wallace’s leadership district’s reserves have dwindled from $12.2 million in 1998 to about $4.5 million today.
Former employees Devina Douglas and Scott Mascolo contend a former plant supervisor instructed staff to manipulate effluent release numbers in order to keep the public from knowing the aging plant is in need of a complete upgrade. If the plant is modernized, Wallace, who is not qualified to manage a modern sewage plant, would lose a lucrative source of income.
Douglas and Mascolo said that for several years the plant has been unable to comply with environmental requirements during the summer months. Instead administrators avoided sampling when they were not certain they could reach their BOD requirements.
In 2010, former lab technician Douglas said she refused to throw away a sample that showed high levels of bacteria when instructed to do so by Jeff Appleton, the plant superintendent. An event witnessed by four plant employees, according to a water board investigation.
Douglas told CalCoastNews that Appleton asked her several times during 2010 to manipulate samplings in order to cover for problems at the plant.
After taking her concerns to Wallace, who allegedly made no changes, Douglas informed the state and local water boards of the plant’s mismanagement. An investigation that followed resulted in the plant being served multiple notices of violation and Wallace terminating both Douglas and Mascolo.
During periods of non-compliance, Douglas and Mascolo said Wallace would increase sampling to every day in order to reduce the average BOD.
Wallace claimed at a district board of directors meeting last week that the district was voluntarily sampling every day in July in order to better characterize the effluent. At the same meeting, interim plant superintendent Bob Barlogio said the July BOD violation would likely result in fines.
On December 18, as the result of influent pump failures, as much as 3 million gallons of raw sewage was dumped into Oceano neighborhoods, beaches and the Pacific Ocean.
State regulators responded in May and served the district another notice of violation because of the December spill and conflicting sewage release numbers. Wallace answered the violation in June and is awaiting the state’s response which could include fines of up to $30 million that would fall on the communities and the rate payers, and criminal action against district officials if it is determined they responded untruthfully.