Court opens door to criminal charges in South County sewage spill
August 21, 2012
By KAREN VELIE
A Superior Court judge’s ruling Wednesday has left the door open to criminal prosecution of South San Luis Obispo County Sanitation District officials over a massive spill of raw sewage in December 2010.
The sanitation district is facing civil penalties over the spill that sent up to three million gallons of raw sewage into homes and ocean waters.
The district tried to halt the civil prosecution claiming that state authorities illegally withheld records in the investigation, which would have resulted in the dismissal of any claims in connection with the spill. But, on Wednesday, Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny ruled that the investigatory records were exempt from disclosure because of “a concrete and definite prospect of criminal enforcement.”
Regional Water Resources Control Board prosecutors are expected to ask law enforcement agencies to prosecute South San Luis Obispo County Sanitation District Administrator John Wallace. District board members also may be prosecuted. The district serves about 38,000 customers in Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach and Oceano.
Regional Water Resources Control Board prosecutors accuse Wallace of not properly maintaining or operating the plant and failing to properly report incidents to regulators. In addition to serving as the chief administrator, 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.
A civil liability hearing on the spill is set for Sept. 7. Sanitation district officials will have an opportunity to argue against the water board’s proposed $1.4 million fine. Following the hearing, the regional board is expected to contact law enforcement to seek criminal prosecution.
Sanitation district officials claim that extremely wet weather in conjunction with a tripped electrical breaker in a supposedly waterproof housing caused the plant’s intake pumps to fail and sewage to pour out. In addition, a valve that inadvertently was closed could not be opened because it was submerged in water, slowing attempts to control the spill.
Sanitation district legal counsel contends there is no evidence of mismanagement or improper maintenance, which according to case law would mean they are not liable for the proposed fines.
On the other side, water board officials allege that Wallace’s failure to properly maintain the plant caused the spill.
In their complaint, water board investigators contend that Wallace was aware of the electrical issues in the intake pump, but failed to make repairs.
In 2003, the district paid the Wallace Group to examine the plant’s outdated electrical system and engineer repairs. The engineering firm determined that the wiring was in dire need of replacement. Wallace scheduled the repairs to occur in the 2004/2005 fiscal year at a cost of $200,000. The work was never done.
In 2006, plant operator Jeff Appleton sent a Wallace Group employee an email voicing his concerns about the repairs that had not taken place.
“Of immediate concern is the fact that the damage to the wiring for the headworks lights has not been repaired,” Appleton says in the email. “I did not realize, until I was doing the rounds this weekend, that the damage to the wiring has also disabled the influent pump room lights.”
In 2009, the district board which includes a representative from the Arroyo Grande and Grover Beach city councils and the Oceano Community Services District approved another payment to Wallace Group to engineer an electrical system upgrade. The repairs, this time slated to run $500,000, were placed as capital improvements to be done in the 2010/ 2011 fiscal year. And again, the work was not done.
The water board also points at problems with the grading of the land at the plant resulting from the Wallace Group’s engineering plans. The grading, they contend, made the electrical boxes the low point at the plant.
A third factor in the 2010 sewage spill, according to the water board, had to do with Wallace’s purchase of an emergency pump. Investigators have evidence Wallace was informed that purchasing a second-hand pump was a bad idea. Wallace argued that it was a good deal and purchased the pump, which had been rehabilitated, according to court documents.
During the 2010 intake pump failure, plant staff attempted to use the emergency pump to avoid a spill. Within five minutes of the pump being turned on, it failed, according to the timeline of the spill event.
As a result, sewage flowed into approximately 40 homes in Oceano. Unaware of allegations of mismanagement and fraud, none of the residents filed suits against the district before the statute of limitations to make a claim against the public agency ran out. However, if the hearing results in charges of mismanagement, those homeowners would have an opportunity to seek restitution from Wallace and possibly sanitation district board members.
During the Sept. 7 hearing, homeowners will have an opportunity to discuss their losses and give their recommendations for civil liabilities. Homeowners unable to attend the hearing can submit letters to South SLO County Enforcement Issue, 895 Aerovista Place, suite 101, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401. In order to be considered during the hearing, letters must be received by 5 p.m. on Aug. 27.