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City caught in sewer suit

Submitted by on 1, December 21, 2009 – 5:45 amOne Comment
East Bay MUDs Wet Weather Facility at Point Isabel, in Richmond. Photo from the EPAs website.

East Bay MUD's Wet Weather Facility at Point Isabel, in Richmond. Photo from the EPA's website.

Alameda is one of seven cities and sewer districts being sued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as part of that agency’s effort to prevent sewage spills into San Francisco Bay.

On November 20, the environmental agency handed administrative orders to Alameda and six other entities in the East Bay Municipal Utility District’s sewage collection system demanding that they implement programs to better monitor, clean and maintain their sewer systems and flow and that they provide a host of reports to the federal agency.

The effort is focused on discharges from East Bay MUD’s wet weather facilities into the Bay, according to a press release issued by the EPA on December 4, the day after the federal agency sued Alameda and the others.

“These actions will set the stage for long-lasting improvements to the East Bay wastewater system, providing important protections for the Bay,” Alexis Strauss, the EPA’s Water Division director for the Pacific Southwest region, was quoted as saying in the release. “This cooperative yet regulated approach marks an important step forward to eliminate discharges of partially treated sewage to the San Francisco Bay and will lead to a more sustainable sewage collection infrastructure program.”

City Attorney Teresa Highsmith said the city plans on working with the EPA and the water board to address the problems. Per Highsmith:

Alameda anticipates entering into its own Consent Order with USEPA that contains a program of studies and improvements for the City’s sanitary sewer collection system, along with milestones and deadlines, for reducing the wet weather overflows that are common in older urban infrastructure. The City looks forward to cworking with USEPA, the Regional Water Quality Control Board, and the State Water Resources Control Board in order to achieve progress and improvements in this area.

An EPA spokeswoman, Mary Simms, said the issue is a common one across the country and that her agency has been working on a national scale to correct them. Simms said she couldn’t comment on why her agency chose to sue the cities less than two weeks after the filing of the administrative orders, though she said the suit “is an appropriate means to assure that the parties undertake timely and appropriate compliance actions.”

The Bay Area’s Regional Water Quality Control Board filed cease and desist orders against the seven local agencies in 1986 and again in 1993 in an effort to stop sewage discharges into the Bay, the EPA’s order says. It says Alameda completed work contained in a compliance plan generated in the wake of those orders and that the city continues to conduct sewer rehabilitation work.

Simms said the efforts have substantially reduced, but not eliminated, discharges of partially treated or untreated sewage into the Bay.

Based on a review of reports, EPA officials found that the city’s sewage collection facilities experienced 34 overflows between July 1, 2005 and December 31, 2008, the order says. It says that based on the current schedule, it would take the city a decade to clean out its entire, 242-mile-long sewer system.

The city has $15 million in its sewer fund, plus a $3 million IOU from its redevelopment agency for money it borrowed toward completion of extension work on Wilver “Willie” Stargell Avenue.

One Comment »

  • Mark Irons says:


    I think what may not be clear here is that the problem arises when rain run off gets into the sanitary sewer. As far as I know, in Alameda the storm drains and sanitary sewers are completely separate, though the sanitary system is right there under those steel manhole covers in the street. Heavy water intrusion from cracked pipes results in street or sidewalk collapse, so they get repaired. How else is the run off getting into the wrong sewer. Sometimes home owners tap their roof gutter downspouts into their sanitary sewer. The city can test for this by blowing smoke into the sewer and looking for it rising out of gutters, but I have seldom noticed anybody improperly diverting their roof water.

    So where is the problem?

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