Broken Pipes, Broken System 

Oakland has failed to report hundreds of thousands of gallons of toxic sewage spills that have sickened animals, damaged property, and polluted waterways, including Lake Temescal.

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click to enlarge Terry Tobey said she's not confident that her battle with the city is over, because the sewer line repairs appear to have not been done correctly. - PHOTO BY GABRIELLE CANON
  • Photo by Gabrielle Canon
  • Terry Tobey said she's not confident that her battle with the city is over, because the sewer line repairs appear to have not been done correctly.

Sean Maher, a spokesperson for Oakland Public Works responding on behalf of the department, wrote in a statement to the Express that they have been working with Tobey to address her "concerns with the publicly owned sewer system that flows through her property."

He added: "The city, with technical assistance from several contractors and in consultation with the regional water board, has reviewed the sewer and surrounding watershed extensively and ha[s] not identified any water quality issues related to the condition of the sewer. The city is also working with Ms. Tobey and her neighbors to ensure that necessary improvements are made to the privately owned portions of the sewer that may also be affecting the system. It is the homeowner's responsibility to address private sewer defects, as such, the city informed the property owner of their need to make repairs."

But public records show a test conducted by the city in January 2016 called for the main sewage line to be repaired, citing danger of imminent collapse. Crews couldn't get a camera to go into the pipe more than 52 feet due to the degree of blockage. The city didn't repair the pipe for close to two years. (In the East Bay, cities are responsible for maintaining the public sewer lines that ultimately feed into East Bay MUD's wastewater treatment plant in West Oakland.)

Public records also show a sewage overflow was officially documented at Tobey's property in the beginning of 2017. It was the second recorded by the California State Water Resources Control Board for the area.

And during several months last winter and spring, even after Tobey said she was told by city officials that the pipe had not been compromised, she discovered large quantities of toxic foam flowing down through the channel onto her land.

The foam is made from chemical cocktails that can include powerful herbicides like Metham Sodium, Dichlobenil, and Diquat Dibromide, and is applied to pipes to keep roots from growing into them. Manufacturers, including Sewer Sciences Inc. and an Australian company, Drainchem Pty Ltd, warn that protective gear should be worn while administering the chemicals and that medical attention should be sought immediately if any contact occurs.

But for weeks the foam streamed unabated across Tobey's property and pooled alongside the barn close to one of her horse's stalls. By April 2017, Scout, her rescued mustang, had developed lesions on his body and a peeling burn on his knee, and had rubbed out his own tail in an attempt to scratch his itchy skin. It still hasn't fully grown back.

Tobey's dog Sadie, a border collie/McNab mix whom she said may have rolled in the toxic foam, is in even worse shape. Most of her hair fell out, revealing large patches of scaled skin. She also has to wear a dog diaper because she's become incontinent.

Although the Express has not independently verified that the foam and sewage water were responsible for sickening Tobey's animals, she said she is certain that their health problems — which both animals developed around the time they were in contact with the wastewater — were caused by the contamination to her property.

"All I wanted to do was retire here and enjoy my horses. That's all I wanted," she said. "Instead, my time is spent repairing the property or investigating the city and writing letters. That's all I do."

Tobey has even tried to involve Campbell Washington — whose house overlooks hers on the hillside above and whose sewage feeds into one of the city's compromised pipes — and has repeatedly sent documents to City Auditor Brenda Roberts, City Administrator Sabrina Landreth, and even Mayor Libby Schaaf. Campbell Washington was the only one to follow up on the concerns and emailed her letter to city staff, but the problems continued.

"I am a tough person but — ya know ...," Tobey said, taking a long pause to steel herself, "it gets to me. If it wasn't my family home, I would have left a long time ago rather than subject myself and my animals to this. I am one person, but I am fighting an entire city."

"I don't really have a comment on it," said Campbell Washington, referring to Tobey's battle with the city. "The role that I play in the district is making sure that when constituents and residents have issues, that they get to the right department who can help them. And that's really the role that I played there. Just making sure that her issue was seen and being addressed by the right staff members within public works."

Tobey said there has just been one city worker who has come to her defense: Loren Little, a senior supervisor for Oakland's Drainage Division. Last May, Little received the forwarded email from Campbell Washington about Tobey's situation and visited her property. He was appalled by what he saw.

"They didn't care about her horses. They didn't care about her dog. They didn't care about none of that," Little said in an interview. "They did not give a damn."

Little explained that the foam he observed was further proof of a broken sewer line. "When you administer the root foam to the sewer lines, it is not supposed to come above ground. It is supposed to stay in the pipe," he said. "But when you have a clay pipe like this that has cracks in it — wide open cracks — the foam is going to find its way up, if there's a block to the line."

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