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City sewage spill could cost millions Board studies weeklong episode

By Terry Rodgers UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER March 9, 2000

Regional water officials have cited the city of San Diego and warned of $360 million or more in possible fines for the undetected weeklong discharge of 36 million gallons of untreated sewage into the ocean.

As part of its investigation, the Regional Water Quality Control Board has ordered the city to disclose how the worst raw sewage spill in its history happened and what was done, if anything, to prevent it.

A notice of violation states that if San Diego is found to have broken environmental regulations, it is liable for fines of up to $10,000 for each day of pollution, and a penalty of $10 per gallon discharged.

While the regional water board -- which ultimately will decide if the city was negligent or could have prevented the incident -- is unlikely to levy the maximum fine against the city, "They're going to be held accountable," John Robertus, the agency's executive director, said yesterday.

Meanwhile, the San Diego Metropolitan Wastewater Department's top official, Dave Schlesinger, voluntarily testified yesterday before the board's regular monthly meeting, held in Temecula.

He promised that the department will install a state-of-the-art monitoring system to detect major sewer line failures in the future. The remote monitoring system will cost at least $250,000 and could be operating within six months.

"We take this spill very seriously and our responsibility to the environment seriously," Schlesinger said.

He has previously said the massive discharge took so long to discover because city workers check the flow of untreated sewage once a week rather than daily.

Environmentalists at the meeting were unmoved by Schlesinger's promise and urged the board to fine the city $36 million, or $1 for each gallon of raw sewage spilled.

"This is a city with a pattern of denial, misrepresentation and excuses," said Nicole Capretz of the San Diego Environmental Health Coalition.

Board Chairman Wayne Baglin of Laguna Beach expressed frustration about what he called a proliferation of sewage spills in San Diego County and southern Orange County.

"There's been too many spills and no action," he said to a reporter. "We have to do more enforcement to act as a deterrent. Nobody has a concern anymore about a spill because nothing happens to them."

Even so, if the past is any indication, it's improbable that a fine would approach the more than $360 million mentioned by regional water officials.

At one point in the early 1990s, the board said the city could be liable for up to $1.6 trillion in fines stemming from allegations that the city responded late to reports of a sewage leak and underestimated the amount spilled.

Eventually, the board fined the city $830,000 and later increased the penalty to $3.7 million. After negotiations, the actual fine amounted to $1.3 million in cash and in-kind services.

The city's latest and worst spill occurred Feb. 21 when a tree fell and split open a raised manhole, causing raw sewage to enter Alvarado Creek near San Diego State University. The creek flows into the San Diego River and eventually into the Pacific Ocean at Ocean Beach.

It was discovered after a city employee reading week-old data from an in-pipe meter used for billing purposes noticed a dramatic decline in sewage flow into the city's treatment plant.

Contamination prompted county health officials to close about two miles of beach, including all of Ocean Beach and part of Mission Beach and Mission Bay for three days. While exposure to high bacteria counts pose health risks, there were no widespread reports of illnesses.

Pollution warning signs were removed from the quarantined beaches on March 3. The Dog Beach area at the mouth of the San Diego River remains posted because of polluted runoff from recent storms.

Mark Alpert, the regional water agency's chief of enforcement, said the promise to install an early-warning system for sewage line failures "shows good faith."

The spill has exposed a weakness in the city's ability to detect sewage activity along the estimated 140 miles of pipeline within the city's environmentally sensitive urban canyons. The canyon pipelines are the most vulnerable to failure and undetected leaks because they are remote and are subject to flash floods, falling rocks and vandalism.

In his presentation yesterday, Schlesinger said the incident happened while the river was swollen with rain, "masking the fact that we had a spill." County health officials acknowledged that they were fooled by high bacteria counts, which they mistakenly attributed to polluted runoff rather than raw sewage.

The 33-year-old sewer line where the failure occurred is scheduled to be replaced by next March. "The sewage lines don't belong in the canyons," Schlesinger said, adding that the removal of these pipes is now certain to become a higher priority.

The remote monitoring system the city intends to install uses radio telemetry satellite technology, which transmits real-time data on sewage flows to a central monitoring station.

If a sudden drop in flow is detected, the computerized system automatically notifies sewer officials, Schlesinger said.

"I don't know of any major city in the country that has these" early-warning monitors on sewage lines, he said.

Speaking for San Diego Mayor Susan Golding, press secretary Ric Grenell declined comment directly on the board's action because "she hasn't seen it."

But Grenell said Golding has instructed City Manager Michael Uberuaga to take steps to ensure that any spills are detected promptly and stopped.

"The mayor was astounded that it took so long before we knew about the spill. She immediately directed the manager to set up a system so that in the future we would know immediately."

) Copyright 2000 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.


-- (, March 09, 2000

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