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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Tobey originally believed she was a victim of negligence, but Little thinks it goes far beyond that.

"They think it is out of sight, out of mind," he said. "I mean, who is going to believe this woman? She don't know a damn thing about what we do. So, what they did was give her bogus reports. They claimed we did a smoke test for the sewer lines and everything came out the way it was supposed to — but they didn't do it. It was a damn lie."



Little keeps a copy of the Vitrified Clay Pipe Engineering handbook closely accessible in the desk drawer of his office at the city's drainage division in the Oakland hills. On the desk is a small model of a vitrified clay pipe bell-and-spigot joint. The city's sewers have been the focus of his career and it shows.

"This is a smaller version of what's in the ground," he said, picking up the model. "And this is what's been in the ground on these easements for 100 years."

Little explained that the aging clay pipes that still comprise most of the city's sewer system are slowly being replaced but were originally thought to be made of the most long-lasting material. "That was until they introduced eucalyptus trees," he said. "They love water. So, you got a pipe that's got a bell and a spigot. Any type of crack, any type of break in the bell, that tree root is going to find its way through it."

After spending close to 30 years in the city's sewer department, working his way up from a sewer maintenance worker to a senior supervisor, Little possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of Oakland's 930-mile sanitary sewer system — and its problems.

He got his first sewer job in 1988 after being discharged from the Army and learned the system from the inside out: removing roots, conducting camera checks, and spot-repairing sewer lines.

After becoming a senior supervisor, Little kept detailed diaries each year, accounting for the actions taken by the city and the issues that arose in its sewer system. He also helped the city draft and adopt the Sanitary Sewer Overflow response plan approved by the EPA that is supposed to govern the protocol used to address sewage problems as they happen. And he helped write the consent decree, the 22-year, $300 million agreement adopted by the city in 2014.

"I have always been a guy who has done things by the book," he said emphatically. "And I have been dealing with the issues since I started."

Little has been determined to blow the whistle on the problems in the Oakland Public Works Department ever since he was transferred out of the sewer department unexpectedly in April 2016 and into his current position overseeing drainage. He said he was transferred after he pushed back against department leaders for what he describes as fraudulent practices.

In November 2016, he met with Oakland City Auditor Brenda Roberts, who was elected by voters in 2014 to ensure that corruption is properly investigated and whistleblowers are protected. Instead, Roberts contacted an official at the public works department and informed the person of the meeting with Little, according to Robert McMenomy, who was the audit manager running the auditor's Fraud, Waste, and Abuse Prevention Program at the time. Roberts' alleged move appears to have been a direct violation of Oakland's Whistleblower Ordinance, which was established in 2008 and is designed to protect whistleblowers from exposure and retribution.

Roberts' office responded that they are unable to comment about ongoing investigations or whistleblower reports. But in an emailed statement, a spokesperson for Roberts denied that she exposed Little, writing that "the city auditor keeps confidential the identity of anyone reporting information."

But Little contends that after he went to Roberts, he was targeted by higher ups in the public works department, including current director Jason Mitchell. Mitchell declined to be interviewed for this report.

Little's concerns include the alleged misuse of public funds — specifically, the taxpayer-subsidized sewer fund. Under the consent decree, the fund can only be used for "the construction, maintenance, and operation of the sanitary sewer system."

Every water bill charged and administered through East Bay Municipal Utility District in Oakland includes a sewer service fee, which has increased annually over the last five years. For Oakland households, which account for 70 percent of the revenues in the sewer fund, the minimum fee currently stands at $75.14 and ranges up to $168.60, paid bi-monthly. Other EBMUD customers, including businesses and apartment buildings, are billed by volume.

On notices provided to residents about fee increases, the city noted that the fee "pays for long-range maintenance and rehabilitation programs to eliminate overflows and meet regulatory requirements."

But the city's budget shows that millions of dollars from the fund go to expenses other than sewer maintenance. In the upcoming fiscal year, the budget shows that more than $3 million of the sewer fund revenue will go to the Department of Transportation's Great Streets program, and roughly $1.4 million is to be reserved to help the city settle or fight lawsuits. City officials contend that the funds will be indirectly used to bolster the sewer system.

"All Sewer Service Fees funds are allocated to maintain, or support maintenance of, the public sewer system," Maher wrote in an email. "Multiple work groups contribute to this work. Major examples include sewer inspectors and engineers, drainage work to maintain the stormwater sewer system and mitigate stormwater inflow and infiltration into the sanitary sewer system, and city crews assigned to assist when we are digging up roadways to rehabilitate or replace components of the system."

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