SAN DIEGO - Rash of Sewage Spills Causing Alarm : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

[Fair use for education and research purpose only] Title: Rash of sewage spills causing alarm Latest incident dumps 505,000 gallons in bay

By Terry Rodgers and Michael Stetz UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITERS March 23, 2000

SAN DIEGO -- So far this year, San Diego's Metropolitan Wastewater Department has compiled its worst raw sewage spill record in 14 years.

And today is only the third day of spring.

Now, with the report of another huge spill, concern is turning into alarm over the seemingly never-ending series of sewage overflows.

"It's a travesty. It's really reached a point of crisis," Nicole Capretz, an attorney with the San Diego Environmental Health Coalition, said yesterday.

The latest spill, blamed on vandals, fouled San Diego Bay last week with 505,000 gallons of untreated sewage. Signs warning of contaminated water were posted at five swimming areas.

Sewer officials reported the overflow last week as a 40,000-gallon spill. But yesterday, after checking the data recorded by a downstream flow meter, officials discovered the actual spill was more than 10 times the volume initially estimated.

The vandals who sabotaged the sewer main lifted a manhole cover in Southcrest sometime before March 16 and tossed pieces of concrete into the pipeline, causing a backup. Last month, 36 million gallons of raw sewage ran undetected from a broken manhole 12 miles inland into the ocean for a week.

The new spill brings to nearly 37 million gallons the amount of untreated sewage that has fouled San Diego's rivers, bays and beaches since January.

It's the worst spillage record since 1986.

Metro Wastewater officials, who are facing fines from the state for the February spill, have promised to install a $225,000, state-of-the-art early warning system using computerized flow meters capable of detecting dramatic drops in sewage flow.

The spate of sewage spills brought protests from about 30 people attending Tuesday's monthly meeting of the Ocean Beach Town Council.

Ocean Beach has borne the brunt of the sewage spills because the community sits at the end of the San Diego River flood-control channel, the final destination for overflows in the river's 277,543-acre watershed.

Last year, Dog Beach was closed to public contact a total of 77 days. Nineteen of the closures were caused by sewage spills, 20 were caused by polluted runoff and 38 were from unknown sources of high bacteria.

"Something needs to be done," said Carol Smith, council president. "Ocean Beach has put up with these spills for the last 20 years. It's gone on too long.

"The technology is available to remedy the situation, but it hasn't been allowed to be put into place. We'll keep hammering until it's put into place."

The Town Council has sent a letter to Mayor Susan Golding asking for a $10,000 grant to pay for a publicity campaign to erase the black eye caused by the beach closures.

Flow-meter data have pinpointed the start of the overflow that contaminated San Diego Bay at 11 p.m. March 16. Raw sewage surged out of the manhole and into a concrete-lined drainage channel for 22 hours without being reported by neighbors. Finally, at 9 p.m. Friday, a resident near the clogged manhole telephoned the city and complained of a strong sewer odor.

Repair crews got the line unclogged and back in service at 12:45 a.m. Saturday. About 26 hours elapsed from the time the spill occurred to when it was halted.

The spill might have been detected sooner had Metro Wastewater been checking the data recorded every 15 minutes by 114 in-pipe flow meters placed at key connections in the city's 2,800-mile sewage system.

Sewer officials began checking flow-meter data for the first time last week. It's a precaution that was ordered after February's massive spill.

But the meter downstream from the clogged pipeline wasn't among those being checked each day because there aren't yet enough people trained to do the work, said Charles Yackly, a Metro Wastewater official in charge of the sewer delivery system.

"We're trying to get more personnel trained on how to look at the (flow) data and interpret it," Yackly said. "Training just started on Monday."

Neither the Police Department nor Metro Wastewater has started an investigation to find those responsible for sabotaging the sewer main, and none is likely to be launched, Yackly said.

"You could tell (the concrete) was put down there with a vengeance," he said. "It's amazing what some folks are capable of."

Late yesterday, Councilman Byron Wear called for a means to investigate and prosecute sewer-system vandalism. He wants the city's newly created storm-water pollution team to probe vandalism on sewer lines.

Vandals are responsible for sabotaging sewer lines about a dozen times each year.

"If we can identify somebody, sure, we go after it," Yackly said.

But there are so far no clues, and Metro Wastewater has no investigators on staff to track down the culprits, he said.

The spill entered San Diego Bay at Seventh Street within the 32nd Street Naval Station, an area of the bay with poor tidal circulation.

Because of the potential that the raw sewage hadn't been completely diluted, the county Department of Environmental Health on Tuesday posted five beaches around the bay with contamination warnings, even though it had been nearly four days since the spill was stopped. The posted beaches were Tidelands Park and Glorietta Bay in Coronado, the bay side of Silver Strand State Beach, Spanish Landing and Shelter Island.

"Viruses can exist for quite a period of time, from several days to a week," said Chris Gonaver of the county's Environmental Health Department.

"The dilution effect in San Diego Bay is different than what we would find in the open ocean," he said. "We don't know where the spill may have gone or how far."

Water samples taken yesterday at the beaches where warnings were posted will tell if any contamination is present. The test results will be available today.

Beachgoers were, of course, unhappy. La Mesa's Heather Wells arrived at Tidelands Park with her two young daughters -- both dressed in bathing suits -- ready for a fun day at the tiny bay-side beach.

Then she heard the word. The water was off-limits. Warning signs had been planted in the sand along the shoreline.

"I had no idea (of the spill)," she said, as Taylor, 6, and Avery, 4, seemed all set to hit the water.

Instead, they would play on the nearby playground, Wells said.

Others faced the same disappointment. A beautiful spring day may have beckoned, but the seemingly inviting water was not safe to play in.

Patty Green of Santee carefully watched her two children, Anthony, 4, and Sydney, 2, to make sure they didn't wander too close to the water at Glorietta Bay Park.

She, too, had no idea. It was a vacation day for her.

"Go figure," Green said. "We didn't expect this."

Charlie Burris, 33, ventured into the water despite the warnings.

He was paddle-boarding around Coronado. He had heard of the spill, but didn't believe it had reached the part of the bay where he paddling, which was north of Tidelands Park.

"The water doesn't look any different. It doesn't smell any different," he said.

Others expressed disbelief that San Diego waters had been fouled for the second time in just weeks.

"Again? My God," said Samuel Seffrin, an Ocean Beach resident who was fishing from the pier on Shelter Island.

Shane Tymer, a Golden Hill resident who also was fishing from the pier, shook his head.

Tymer loves the water. He served five years in the Navy, and he fishes and surfs. His grandfather was buried at sea, and because of that, Tymer feels a certain connection to the ocean.

"I cringe when I hear about stuff like this," he said. "It's disgusting."

) Copyright 2000 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.


-- (, March 24, 2000

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