January 31, 2007
Oakland Sues EBMUD Over Landslide
By Momo Chang
OAKLAND -- A 164-million-gallon tank of water sitting quietly in Oakland could be what caused a landslide in May that destroyed one home and damaged several others.
That's what City Attorney John Russo, who filed a lawsuit against the East Bay Municipal Utility District, said Tuesday morning.
EBMUD oversees Central Reservoir, located two blocks north of McKillop Road, where a landslide occurred last year, and just west of Interstate 580 and the Hayward fault. The land continues to slide in this Dimond/Upper Fruitvale neighborhood, and City Council declared the McKillop slide area an ongoing emergency in the fall.
"It's nice that there is some action," said Miki Raver, whose home at 2866 McKillop Road began sliding in late April and completely toppled over in November. Although it's unlikely that residents will receive monetary compensation as a result of the city's lawsuit, it could be grounds for future lawsuits if they pursue it.
Raver said the experience of watching her home collapse was traumatic. She moved to a one-bedroom Tiburon apartment with her husband, Marty Perlmutter, closer to her job.
"All of us know that our houses are the biggest investment of our lives," said Council President Ignacio De La Fuente (Glenview- Fruitvale), whose district includes the McKillop neighborhood, at the press conference with Russo.
Russo said his office doesn't take lawsuits against other public agencies lightly. The lawsuit was filed Tuesday in Alameda County Superior Court.
"Unfortunately, we felt we had no choice in this matter," he said at the news conference.
Since May, residents in the area have organized themselves, seeking answers from the city, EBMUD and various other agencies.
Many have suspected the large basin of water, which brings drinking water to about 200,000 Oakland residents, as a cause of past and current landslides.
The lawsuit alleges the reservoir is a public nuisance as it stands and that leaks from Central Reservoir caused the landslide.
"Despite numerous inspections of Central Reservoir showing cracks and other failures of the protective panelcraft lining and other structures intended to stop or deter water leakage, there has been no consistent and lasting repair or maintenance of Central Reservoir since at least 1961," according to the lawsuit.
"The continuous and unabated water seepage and leakage from Central Reservoir caused and continues to cause the undermining, movement and destruction of homes," the lawsuit states.
Based on separate public records requests from this newspaper and the city to EBMUD, documents show since at least 2001, cracks have been found in the lining of the reservoir.
A September 2005 dive report stated 175 leaks marked by a 2003 underwater inspection of the basin's lining were left unrepaired.
A July 2006 dive report found three leaks, one concluded to be an "aggressive leak." A video of the dive -- done after the slide -- released as part of the records request confirms the leaks. Russo said EBMUD has told his office the three leaks have since been repaired.
"The reservoir, like all large reservoirs, has a normal amount of leakage," according to a statement released by EBMUD Tuesday. "But, as we have explained to the city and provided in documentation, the leaks are measured, monitored and collected in a drainage system that connects to the storm drain."
The Central Reservoir is under the jurisdiction of the state's Division of Safety of Dams.
The McKillop Road area has a history of landslides since the mid- 1930s, about 10 years after the neighborhood was built, in a continuing slide that destroyed 14 homes. The reservoir was constructed around 1910 and was then under a different jurisdiction. EBMUD formed in 1923 and took over jurisdiction of the reservoir.
In the mid-1950s, another landslide on McKillop damaged and destroyed eight homes. EBMUD drained the reservoir in the'50s and relined and renovated the structure in 1961.
"We believe this unfortunate situation arises from the fact this is a neighborhood that sits on historically unstable soil that experienced two years of very heavy rainfall," according to EBMUD's statement.
The lawsuit also seeks compensation for the work the city is doing on repairing the damaged road, which will cost nearly $3 million.
In addition, the lawsuit states the public agency also failed to provide all the documents requested by the city, claiming "national security" as the basis for redaction in some cases.
"The Band-Aid approach doesn't work," Russo said.
EBMUD has been patching leaks in the reservoir, but hasn't done major rehaul work since the'60s, he said.
Russo said the city has been trying to work with EBMUD since last year, and hopes the lawsuit will push the agency's leaders to address the reservoir issue more seriously. A major upgrade or renovation may be needed.
Resident Cassandra Royal-Ross, whose 2906 McKillop Road home was yellow-tagged in early June and who lived two doors from the Perlmutter/Raver home, said the lawsuit gives her some hope.
"It's been a very stressful situation," she said, adding the lawsuit alleviates some pressure on the residents, although she believes it is just a first step.
Her home was built by her father in the late 1970s. Both her parents are from New Orleans, and wanted to save the house for their children.
Before the slide, Royal-Ross lived with her parents, her husband and two sons in the home.
Since June, they have had to pack up their belongings and move out of the home, on which they are still paying mortgage. It has caused much emotional and financial drain on her family, Royal-Ross said.
She currently lives in a Berkeley apartment with her husband and two sons. Her parents have moved to Colusa.
Although the city has made an effort since the slide to repair the damaged road by installing two retaining walls, they essentially wall off properties on the slide side.
That includes the Perlmutter/Raver property, a nursery, a Jehovah's Witness meeting hall and two other homes -- one of them belonging to Royal-Ross.
The wall being built by the city is only intended to save the street.
Residents all over the densely populated neighborhood have been concerned about future catastrophes.
"If we have an earthquake and the reservoir breaks, there's going to be a Katrina-like disaster in the Dimond district," Royal-Ross said.
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