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 Loren Little, senior supervisor for Oakland's Drainage Division, said city officials retaliated against him when he blew the whistle on Oakland's sewer line problems. - PHOTO BY GABRIELLE CANON
  • Photo by Gabrielle Canon
  • Loren Little, senior supervisor for Oakland's Drainage Division, said city officials retaliated against him when he blew the whistle on Oakland's sewer line problems.

He added that the millions of dollars transferred into Oakland's general fund from the sewer fund is used to cover liability of costs when the system fails — a "standard risk management practice" — and is "earmarked specifically for the risk management of the public sewer system."

But Little said he discovered the fund had been used to purchase equipment for another department. Earlier this year, he found out that $60,000 was missing from his own operating budget in the drainage division and had been used to purchase trucks for another division, he said. When he inquired about the issue, Mitchell congratulated him for keeping such a close eye on his budget and stated that the expense had been approved the previous year, according to an email reviewed by the Express.

"I think this is just the tip of the iceberg," Little said. "They took money out of my operating budget. I am the division head, and they can't take my money and not let me know what they are doing with it."

Beyond the money not being allocated correctly, Little said the Public Works Department has been negligent in overseeing and inspecting the work done by private contractors, and often the city has to pay city staffers to fix problems afterward.

One contractor, Andes Construction, often receives multimillion-dollar contracts despite a questionable work history, he said. The company, run by Danilo Mayorga, has been doing contracted work in the East Bay since 1986, in spite of numerous complaints.

In 2003, community newspaper The MacArthur Metro published a scathing article on Andes' work, titled "I Smell a Rat," which detailed how an Oakland household ended up with a sewage-filled basement after the contractor left a test plug and a shovel in a sewer pipe being worked on. A month later, in a follow-up story, The Metro noted that an Andes crew began digging at a site without a required "Underground Services Alert" (which ensures it's safe to dig without puncturing a gas line or aqueduct), performed work without the required permits, and leaked oil from its trucks into a creek but did not have spill-control materials to clean it up.

"The saga continues with Andes Construction's lack of understanding of its creek protection permit," wrote journalist Dennis Evanosky (who now publishes the Alameda Sun). "In the very same neighborhood where the company's crew dug without a USA, its crew chose to ignore creek permit directives."

Three city sewer workers interviewed for this report who asked not to be named for fear of retribution said it was well-known that Andes does substandard work and that they are often asked to clean up it messes.

In December, after sewer workers joined staffers in other agencies for a citywide, weeklong strike, they returned to their jobs to find Andes had done work while they were away — and much of it was not up to code, they said.

Scott Riley, a sewer maintenance worker who has worked for the division for nearly 11 years, spoke to the Express while he was working to fix an overflow that had poured into Temescal Creek during the strike. Andes "didn't perform the job correctly, and the flow continued to happen," he said. "We are now posting signs letting citizens know not to go into the creek, because it has been contaminated."

He said it isn't the first time. "We have had to come behind them and straighten out the work that they were supposed to do," he said of Andes.

Other city employees shared similar stories. "You have city crews that have to go in behind these people to re-do the work after they have been paid millions of dollars of taxpayers' money," Little added. "They do shoddy work and no city inspector is overseeing what they do."

Mayorga did not respond to requests for comment for this report.

Maher stated that inspections are required and performed and that private contractors must conduct their work in accordance with both the Oakland Municipal Code and the 2015 Greenbook Public Works Standards. "City inspectors are a regular presence on-site throughout the construction phase of permitted work, and contractors must demonstrate their work is code-conforming to a city inspector before the city will sign off on the work's completion," he wrote in an email to the Express.

But Little said that for Andes, city officials allow the contractor to produce its own documentation rather than checking the work independently. "This contractor, Andes, polices their own work," he said. "The city of Oakland has no idea if the work was done right or not."

As a result, the city has not accurately reported to state and federal regulators the work and funding required in the consent decree to rehab Oakland's aging and failing sewer system. In addition, the Express' review of public documents and interviews with city employees show that while some sewage overflows haven't been reported, others appear to have been altered by city sewer supervisors in order to make the city look better.

"We have to produce annual reports that are public information," Little said. "These reports show the EPA how the sewer department is doing on what they were put to task to do.

"And it's full of lies."

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