EPA fines Oakland and municipal utility district for sewage discharge violations

Oakland’s Public Works Department maintains over 900 miles of sewage infrastructure. Most of the parts are 50 years old, but some were built over a century ago.

Oakland’s Public Works Department maintains over 900 miles of sewage infrastructure. Most of the parts are 50 years old, but some were built over a century ago.

Last week, the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) and five East Bay communities were fined $389,300 in penalties for violating the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2014 Clean Water Act settlement. Oakland was penalized the most harshly, collecting $226,500 worth of those fines for its failure to both repair its sewage system’s defects and to prevent sewage from overflowing into the San Francisco Bay.

The effects of overflooding—not just in private homes and neighborhoods, but also into the bay—are deadly for the region’s environment: The EPA says that sewage can deplete oxygen in the bay, threatening fish, seals and other wildlife. “Untreated sewage can spread disease-causing organisms, metals and nutrients that threaten public health,” wrote Michele Huitric, a spokesperson from the EPA’s Pacific Southwest Region, in an email. At the root of the problem, she wrote, is aging sewer infrastructure, which is an issue across America.

In a press release on April 24, Alexis Strauss, the EPA’s Acting Regional Administrator for Region 9, which covers the Bay Area, reminded the public of the communities’ original commitments to upgrade older infrastructure. These fines, she stated, are to be considered an action “to ensure diligent attention to [the] renewal of wastewater infrastructure.”

The 2014 settlement required the EBMUD and East Bay cities to pay $1.5 million as a civil penalty for past sewage discharges and to “conduct extensive system repairs” on their 1,500-mile-long sewer system infrastructure over a 21-year period. This was intended to help eliminate millions of gallons of sewage discharges into the bay.

But EBMUD and certain Easy Bay cities—Oakland, Albany, Alameda and Berkeley—are now being assessed additional penalties for violations of the settlement that occurred between September 22, 2014, and June 30, 2017. As Oakland’s Public Works Department maintains over 900 miles of sanitary sewer pipes—most of which are 50 years old—the city’s need for upgrades was pressing, wrote Huitric. Some parts of the system were built a century ago.

“As the agency with the largest portion of the sewer system, Oakland needs to meet the rehabilitation requirements in order to reduce inflow and infiltration enough to prevent discharges from the wet weather facilities,” wrote Huitric in the email. She added that, although Oakland’s system is the longest, the entire sewer system throughout the Bay Area needs to be properly maintained in order to “fully protect human health and the environment.”

According to Oakland’s Public Works Department, responsibility for maintaining the sewers is split between the city, EBMUD and individual property owners. Property owners are responsible for maintaining the pipes that connect homes to the main sewer system, while the city maintains the pipes that carry waste to the treatment plant. The city’s public works website warns residents from flushing or putting down the drain any type of debris, including used bandages, tooth floss and wipes.

EBMUD is responsible for the overall collection, treatment and disposal of waste in nine East Bay cities—including the cities that were fined additional penalties—before it reaches the water. During the process, solids are removed from wastewater and “beneficially reused,” according to the EBMUD’s website.

But an especially rainy winter can put additional pressure on this system. Jenesse Miller, EBMUD’s senior public information representative, said the East Bay’s wastewater system is in theory a closed system not meant to treat storm water, which enters the sewer system through cracks in aging pipes and overwhelms the wastewater system until waste is accidentally released into the bay. “We manage inflow coming from people’s toilets, sinks, showers,” she said.  “In an ideal world, our structure should only be treating wastewater and not storm water.” But EBMUD reports that flows can increase to 14 times the normal volume during rainy days.

“The vast majority of the incidents that are under this fine happened during one of the wettest winters on record for the Bay Area, and they also happened following a prolonged, five-year drought,” Miller said. Of the nine incidents described in the stipulation of penalty demand, most occurred between December 10, 2016 and February 20, 2017.

While Miller understands that these penalties were mostly a result of wet weather, she also said that proper personnel training and continuous quality improvement are necessary for compliance. Though weather cannot be controlled, EMBUD has a plan to handle the other factors. “We have been beefing up training for the staff responsible for managing inflows. We have reviewed in detail the performance during the wet seasons, and we are also reviewing performance during the recent wet season, too,” said Miller.

The recent performance review for March—which was a wet month with a lot of inflow, according to Miller—revealed that none of the incidents had recurred. “The training is already paying off,” she said.

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