Sanitation district smacked with $1.4 million proposed fine
June 19, 2012
By KAREN VELIE
Ratepayers in the communities of Arroyo Grande, Oceano, and Grover Beach are facing increased utility bills to cover a $1,383,007 proposed fine for a raw sewage spill that occurred because of alleged mismanagement of the South San Luis Obispo County Sanitation District, according to a complaint lodged Monday by the Regional Water Resources Control Board.
In the complaint, prosecutors accuse district administrator John Wallace of not properly maintaining or operating the plant and failing to properly report incidents to regulators. Wallace is the owner and president of the Wallace Group, a private engineering consulting firm located in San Luis Obispo that receives from $50,000 to $80,000 a month for plant administration and engineering services.
“The water board’s enforcement team is proposing a reasonable penalty in this case based on the evidence, the law, and previous cases,” said Michael Thomas, assistant executive officer for the Regional Water Board.
“A preventable sewage spill of more than a million gallons is a serious issue, and one of the main purposes of enforcement is to deter future violations,” Thomas said. “Unfortunately, we were unable to reach a negotiated settlement with the sanitation district because, based on the facts and our experience, the district’s spill amount calculations weren’t reasonable. So we scheduled this matter for a public hearing, where the water board itself will decide the outcome.“
In addition, regulators accuse Wallace of using a methodology to estimate the 1,139,825 gallon spill that is “inaccurate and unreliable.” Instead of relying on approved spill calculation methods such as using computer graphs of influent at the time of the electrical failure and historical data, Wallace used eyewitness accounts of sewage pouring out of manhole covers.
Shortly after the Dec. 19, 2010 spill, which was caused by an electrical shortage of outdated wiring that had been slated to be replaced for years, Wallace estimated 110,000 gallons of sewage had spilled into the community of Oceano, local waterways, and the Pacific Ocean.
Three days later, plant operators reported a 894,600 gallon spill to regulators. By Jan. 3, 2010, Wallace, using a method created by his staff at the Wallace Group, reported the spill at 383,200 gallons. In 2011, following a notice of violation from state regulators, Wallace increase the reported sewage spill amount to 417,298 gallons.
In arriving at 1.4 million gallons, regulators took the approximately 3 million gallons of raw sewage entering the plant during the failure and subtracted almost 2 million gallons of sewage that bypassed the failed pump and entered the treatment plant (based on an effluent meter that operated correctly during the failure), according to the water boards’ technical report of the spill.
Regulators have set a tentative public hearing on the complaint for Sept. 6 at the water board office in San Luis Obispo. At the hearing, sanitation district officials will have an opportunity to argue against the complaint.
The district, which serves the residents of the Oceano Community Service District, Arroyo Grande and Grover Beach, is governed by a three person board consisting of one representative from each community.