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.