October 2, 2008

San Mateo, Hillsborough and Crystal Springs Fined $1.7 Million for Discharging Sewage

By Julia Scott

San Mateo, Hillsborough and the county-run Crystal Springs sanitation districts must collectively pay more than $1.7 million in fines to a regional enforcement agency for discharging raw sewage into streets, creeks and San Francisco Bay in violation of the Clean Water Act.

The San Francisco Regional Water Quality Control Board announced the fines on Tuesday, which penalize each sanitation district for several years' worth of large sewage backups between Dec. 1, 2004 and July 14, 2008.

The districts may choose to contest their penalties at a Regional Water Board hearing tentatively scheduled for Dec. 10.

But if forced to pay the full amount, San Mateo will owe $950,000 for 87 spills totaling more than 3.5 million gallons of raw sewage; Hillsborough will owe more than $750,000 for 71 spills totaling 3 million gallons; and the county, which operates the Crystal Springs Sanitation District, will owe $23,375 for 22 spills totaling 19,000 gallons.

In addition to the fines, the staff of the Regional Water Board is asking board members to approve a collective "cease-and-desist order" that would impose long-term requirements on each sanitation district to do better monitoring of pipeline leaks and come up with lasting solutions. It would not change anything about the way the pipes are maintained in time for the rains this coming winter, however.

Dyan Whyte, assistant executive officer in charge of enforcing the cease-and-desist order, said her agency targeted all three sanitation districts at once because their pipeline systems are interconnected -- the sewer pipes that serve 1,500 residents in the Crystal Springs Sanitation District go through Hillsborough into San Mateo, and all the material eventually reaches San Mateo's wastewater treatment plant.

Many problems occur along the way, however, when rain enters leaky sewer pipes and pushes the sewage up into the streets through manholes and into the storm drain system, which leads to the Bay. Many city-owned pipes are 100 years old. Others are too small to handle all the water or are damaged by tree roots.

"All of these spills are coming from blockages in the system and you can't get any more water down the pipeline because it's filled to capacity," Whyte said.

One major, complicating factor is San Mateo's wastewater treatment plant, which officials say can't handle all the water it gets from leaky sewer pipes in major storms. The pipes back up as a result, often all the way into Hillsborough.

San Mateo is already under orders to upgrade capacity at its wastewater plant by 2013, although the city has no design yet or a proposal for how the city would pay for it.

The cease and desist order would require all three sanitary districts to sit down together and figure out how to reduce flow into the plant as well as how to divide up the costs.

"We believe that to solve the problem, all three entities need to work together," Whyte said. "We're trying to get this message out about sewage spills and the fact that they are not acceptable."

The Regional Water Board has already fined San Mateo $66,000 for illegal discharges at its wastewater treatment plant since 2000, according to records obtained by the Times.

The latest round of fines follows a series of lawsuits against many of the same sanitation districts. The lawsuits were filed by Baykeeper, an Oakland-based environmental group that has been pushing the Regional Water Board to take more aggressive action against sewer overflows.

Baykeeper settled a lawsuit it filed against Burlingame in early 2008 after the city committed tens of thousands of dollars to upgrade its collection system and make environmental improvements to the local watershed. In August, Baykeeper filed similar lawsuits against Hillsborough and the Burlingame Hills Special District -- two areas that divert part or all of their sewer flows to a wastewater plant in Burlingame. Hillsborough also sends part of its wastewater to San Mateo.

Baykeeper Program Director Sejal Choksi said her group is in settlement talks with the two sanitation districts, and that the solutions they come up with will likely be different from the Regional Water Board's.

A spokesman for San Mateo's Public Works Department did not return calls on Tuesday.

Hillsborough Public Works Director Martha DeBry acknowledged the town has "leaky pipes everywhere" but said $750,000 was a steep fine and not entirely justified, considering most of it was based on a January 2008 incident where a storm drain pipe backed up into a canyon and submerged a sewer line below, leading to a spill of 1.9 million gallons.

The problem did not originate with the sewer line, and Hillsborough should not be fined for the incident, said DeBry.

Hillsborough also gets "stuck in the middle" of the Crystal Springs Sanitation District above and San Mateo below, DeBry Said, and it suffers when water backs up from the San Mateo wastewater treatment plant.

Still, DeBry said Hillsborough has put aside $17 million for improvements to the sewer system on top of the millions it has already spent. The town is creating incentives for homeowners to fix their own leaky sewer laterals, which are a big part of the problem.

"It's taking time to repair the whole system. Hillsborough was incorporated over 100 years ago. We have an old sewer system, and a lot of other cities have the same problem," she said.

Money, or lack of it, explains the problems in the Crystal Springs Sanitation District, said Jim Porter, the San Mateo County Public Works Director. Residents managed to block a sewer-rate increase in 2006. Rates went up in 2007, but not enough to fund capital improvements.

"Right now they don't have the money to upgrade those pipes," Porter said.

Staff writer Julia Scott can be reached at (650) 348-4340 or at [email protected]

Originally published by Julia Scott, San Mateo County Times.

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