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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The spill, which began on Jan. 31, would continue for weeks, unloading roughly 50 gallons of wastewater a minute into Lake Temescal. In all, more than 100,000 gallons of untreated sewage flowed into the lake — and the public never knew.

In the email thread about the incident obtained by the Express, which included both parks district and city public works supervisors, parks Environmental Services Manager Becky Tuden wrote that overflows into the lake happen regularly.

But records show the city failed to accurately report the details of last year's spill. In official documents filed to state regulators on Feb. 21, the city of Oakland reported that the spill began on Feb. 8 at 8:00 a.m., even though the email chain showed that the spill started on Jan. 31.

The city also told the state that the spill ended on Feb. 8 at 10 p.m. and that a total of 36,000 gallons of sewage spilled — which is apparently only about one-third of the actual amount that leaked into the lake.

It's also likely not the first time the city has reduced sewage spill numbers to make them look less serious, city workers say. They allege that Oakland city supervisors who submit official documents to regulatory agencies sometimes minimize the numbers reported in the field after overflows occur.

Hugo Velazquez, a sewer maintenance leader and special operator for the sewer main who has worked for the city for 12 years, said he discovered that at least two of his reports were changed after he submitted them. He said he noticed the changes when he happened to see his documents on a supervisor's desk.

Both overflows occurred the same day. Velazquez said he reported the first as 67,500 gallons and the second as 94,500. He recorded videos to back up his reporting.

But the documents that the city filed with state regulators show only 39,000 gallons for the first spill and 47,000 for the second, undercutting each by almost half. The second report still included Velazquez's initial higher estimate of 94,500 gallons in the "spill location description," contradicting the city's official number for the estimated spill volume.

Velazquez was alarmed by the discovery and now questions whether supervisors changed more of his reports without his knowledge. "I noticed there was red ink next to it," he said, adding that when he asked what had happened, the only response he got was that they had "made some adjustments" and not to worry about it.

"I said, 'Wait a minute. You guys sent us to all of these classes where we write up paperwork saying if we did this we could go to jail for this,'" he added. "But if I would have never seen it on top of the desk, I would have never known they changed the numbers. That really made me wonder."

When the city submits reports, department officials have to sign a certification statement under penalty of perjury. But Oakland has a history of failing to comply with regulatory standards and of underreporting sewage spills.

In 2011, San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board fined Oakland $114,000 after it found that the city falsified the start times of sewage overflows and underreported the volume of sewage released.

In 2013, an official inspection revealed that Oakland failed, 35 percent of the time, to alert agencies during the mandated 2-hour time frame when an overflow reached a drainage channel or surface water; did not follow protocol for testing water quality for fecal coliform, E. coli, and ammonia after spills discharged into creeks and lakes; and did not adequately notify the public during dangerous overflows — specifically when sewage spilled into Lake Temescal.

"The city did not post any signs warning the public of raw sewage," the report noted, adding that, even though the overflow didn't occur during swimming season, "Lake Temescal is used for various non-water contact activities such as hiking, fishing, picnicking and biking. The public must be warned that an SSO resulted in a discharge into the lake and of the potential health impacts of contact with lake waters."

According to Bill Johnson, division chief of the Wastewater and Enforcement Division of the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, the agency conducted a follow-up inspection of Oakland in July 2017 but has not yet released the results. The agency has also continued to follow up on reported allegations of noncompliance. "We are aware of a number of issues that have been reported to us in the city of Oakland and the collection system," he said. "Our team is investigating those issues. We are taking it seriously."

Oakland Public Works Department officials contend that the agency is in compliance with the consent decree and that city records reflect a valid assessment of the work being done. "OPW maintains accurate documentation of overflows," wrote Maher. "There are several inter-departmental points of contact and oversight that help ensure intake, dispatch, response, and reporting of overflows is accurate and meets regulatory compliance."

Parties to the 2014 consent decree, like the environmental group San Francisco Baykeeper, which has worked to protect Bay Area waters from pollution for nearly 30 years, rely on and trust the record-keeping of the city, because they do not have the capacity to check themselves. Erica Maharg, Baykeeper's managing attorney, also said that even if the numbers reported were accurate, there's too much sewage flowing into the bay. "The city has more than 900 miles of sewer pipes. So, typically, any one day if you go out and see one segment, you are not going to find anything," she said, adding, "but these reports are submitted under penalty of perjury. So, if there is something wrong, that is a pretty serious offense."

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