City: Bad Cell Service, Other Factors Hindered Sewage Spill Response


By Daniel Langhorne | LB Indy

Laguna Beach submitted an in-depth report Monday to state water quality officials on the Nov. 27 sewage spill in Aliso Woods Canyon, saying the area’s terrain and lack of cell service hampered the emergency response.

The technical report on the estimated 1.87 million gallon spill caused by a breach of the so-called North Coast Interceptor, a 4.1-mile transmission pipeline that channels raw sewage to the Coastal Treatment Plant, is the city’s official account of what happened last Thanksgiving and the following days. It could lay the groundwork for potential state fines and litigation by environmental advocates, said Roger Butow, executive director of Clean Water Now.

“The San Diego Water Board is still evaluating the Technical Report submitted by the City,” said Keith Yaeger, an environmental scientist with the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board. “The Board will make a decision about enforcement once we have reviewed all the facts of the case.”

The Board will notify the public if a penalty is assessed, Yaeger said.

An active sewer spill was witnessed by the Ben Brown’s Golf Course groundskeeper at about 11:30 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day, the report states. The general location of the spill was about 2,600 feet downstream from the Coastal Treatment Plant between the canyon wall and a golf course maintenance path. The breaking point was a corroded section of a 3-inch diameter pipe installed around 1989 inside a vault providing service access to the interceptor pipeline.

“Stopping the spill as soon as possible was of paramount importance to all parties to protect public health and safety, as well as the environment,” Laguna Beach city staff wrote.

Work crews stopped the spill by 12:30 p.m. on Nov. 29, according to the report.

Seven air-vacuum release valves were replaced with stainless steel components in 2009 to plug a leak, according to the report. The air-vacuum release valve involved in the November spill was replaced in 2014.

City staff claim there were several challenges that worked against the spill response team’s effort in November, including the spill’s remote location, the lack of “true roads” to support heavy equipment traffic, concerns about flooding and worker safety, nonexistent cellular service in the canyon area, and the “extreme difficulty” in locating available workers, supplies, and equipment on a holiday.

“Workers were forced to shuttle messages by traveling out of the canyon,” the report states.

The fact that responders had to travel nearly three-quarters of a mile downstream just to transmit a message is unacceptable, Butow said.

“I don’t understand how in this day in age, in a critically fragile place like a stream with a beach outlet, that there was bad cell service,” he said.

City Manager John Pietig instructed Director of Water Quality David Shissler and his staff to post a Request for Proposals for firms to evaluate the North Coast Interceptor’s integrity and needed improvements, the report states. The preliminary report is due in April 2020 to assist with setting future sewer rates that could help fund an overhaul of the pipeline.

In total, Laguna Beach has spent more than $38 million since 2003 on the wastewater system, which includes $9 million to overhaul to the North Coast Interceptor, city staffers wrote.

“Knowing the deteriorating state of the wastewater system, $38 million isn’t a lot of money,” Butow said. “They haven’t been doing what should as fast as they should.”

Jinger Wallace, co-founder of the Laguna Bluebelt Coalition, echoed the concern about the wastewater system’s age and the city staffers’ inability to prevent nearly two million gallons of raw sewage from spilling into the Pacific Ocean.

“I really want to know what we’re doing to correct all of these potential problems and breaks,” she said. “I got the feeling from listening to [David] Shissler that it’s an enormous task that the City Council needs to address and give city staff the resources they need.”

Laguna Bluebelt Coalition co-founder Mike Beanan is recommending the city consult with oil remediation companies that have the technology to capture water, filter it to a high-quality level, and remove the remaining sludge by truck.

He added that the city needs to provide a line item summary for how it spent $38 million over the last 17 years and delineate how much was spent on staff wages versus the installation of new pipes and pumps.

Ultimately, Beanan hopes state officials will hold Laguna Beach accountable for the sewage spill’s harmful impacts on the marine environment.

“Until agencies are fined, they don’t wake up because of the noise from other issues,” he said.

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  1. The NCI is actually longer than 4.1 miles, more like 7 miles long total: Emerald Bay down to Aliso Beach then 1.5 miles out Aliso Canyon to the Coastal Treatment Plant (CTP).
    Second, regarding communications, it’s not just the potential water-related pollution that could trigger another emergency response, including a major spill calamity at the CTP itself: High value, environmentally sensitive habitat that is vulnerable to fires, plus Aliso Creek’s choke point at/near the CTP results in a form of Venturi Effect acceleration, like a firehose amplifying flood damage .
    You have the impact of millions of gallons of water during peak rainy events now accelerated, which should help the public to understand why everything is in jeopardy of winding up at the ocean as the speed and volume, the tractive force of such conditions literally scrubs, dislodges all aquatic lifeforms and lots of riparian bank flora loose ……The Ranch Resort is in a risky flood zone, in the report responders noted that they felt physically at risk.
    So: How is it possible that such an area has no communication system? Why hasn’t Laguna Beach and OC Emergency Services remedied that a long time ago? What about satellite phones?
    This glaring gap has a lot of catastrophic potential, yet inexplicably there is no contingency plan that includes communication alternatives.
    It also severely hampers responsible, conscientious emergency responders who want to perform their tasks efficiently.
    This points out the inexplicable and inexcusable lack of proactively addressing public health and safety as well.

  2. When a mutli-story commercial building is being built in the City of Irvine, a two-way radio propagation study is required to ensure that emergency personnel can maintain critical communications while in that building and on its grounds.

    There is no excuse for the City of Laguna Beach not to have ensured the same level of communications in the interior of Aliso Canyon, as is expected as the norm in downtown Laguna Beach.

    The Ranch should have been required to install cellular and UHF/800 Mhz Repeater equipment; the first to ensure that guests of The Ranch have the best possible experience while on property, especially on the golf course, and the second and more importantly, to ensure that emergency services can maintain the vital communications that they rely on to serve us and keep us safe.

    This is exactly the kind of thing that happens when inexperienced individuals are placed on vital City committees such as the Emergency & Disaster Preparedness committee and past Telecommunications committees.

    Shame on City Manager Pietag, the City Council, and the LBPD. This communications failure falls squarely on you all.

  3. Five senior city staff members left Laguna in the last six months. “Johnson’s departure raises concerns about a loss of institutional knowledge among the top echelon at Laguna Beach City Hall.” Johnson bailed! If only she had taken along John Pietig then Laguna could re-tool.

  4. Bruce:
    Thank you ever so much for the data drop, clarifying input—This calls into question the Office of Emergency Services as well, one of the listed responders in the Technical Report.
    Seriously, cities and the County may have 21st Century, state-of-the-art phones/iPads & computers provided by their respective agencies at taxpayer expense, but then act surprised when they can’t/don’t function during emergencies?
    Shouldn’t they by now have found workarounds for contingencies? And I agree, The Ranch is very upscale, they MUST have WiFi for their patrons & staff, why couldn’t the City just go over, procure pins/codes necessary by presenting themselves at the front desk—It happened right there near the bridge to the 6th hole, someone could have walked over!
    Speaking of responders & training, I know many of our field operatives/employees, all are conscientious: But once again, the Technical Report reflects that it was South Coast Water District & SOC Wastewater Authority field personnel that saved our asses. Shissler, Pietig & Walker just stood around while they performed the horrendous, disgusting tasks necessary. They saved us from even worse ecological damage.
    So OUR employees must not be getting the training necessary, are not up to par with these other agencies. Yet Pietig & Co. get their 5% Performance Bonuses every year, Pietig’s dictatorial yet feudal reward system for those who toe-the-line, keep their mouths shut.
    And who in their right natural mind believes that emergency planning shouldn’t have the element of an employee availability pool, holidays or not? Aren’t there allowances like Time & 1/2, or double time pay scales for such possibilities? Everything can’t be based upon weekday, business hours. That’s why they’re called EMERGENCIES!
    SS System Response Plans must fulfill certain criteria—look for part of the hammer that’s going to come down be focused on our failure.
    I’ve both worked WITH and FOR the SOC water/wastewater utilities, not one of them is surprised, the industry knows what Luddites we are, how poorly our systems have been managed, in what disrepair they are, in need of an increasingly expensive overhaul for decades due to deferred maintenance and CIPs—This spill was inevitable.
    Every time I read the database Laguna submitted to Cal/EPA I get more ticked off—I’m a professional consultant in this area, my expertise IS water/wastewater. Our City cuts corners by not training personnel adequately enough to be the PRIMARY, not back-up responders, and we should let SCWD annex via LAFCO—divest like San Juan Capo is doing with Santa Margarita WD, let water industry experts manage our storm drain and wastewater systems.
    Obviously our management-level employees are in over their heads, perhaps even incompetent.
    We need an intervention.
    If anyone reading this needs the web link to the Report and/or contact info for the SDRWQCB staff to file their own grievances, you can send me an email, address posted at CLEAN WATER NOW’s website.
    My home phone # is also at our website.
    The price of liberty is eternal vigilance—The price of a safe, healthy environment requires no less.


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