The state’s notice of violation, to say the least, is startling.
It finds that the Groveland Community Services District reported that an August 2010 sewer spill amounted to only 10 gallons when in fact it was between 10,000 and 15,000 gallons and flowed into Pine Mountain Lake before the leak was halted.
The State Regional Water Quality Control Board’s notice also reports that the district did not report other leaks. It concludes that the “recurring spills from the district’s sewer lines and the district’s failure to comply with notification requirements” violate more than a half dozen state or federal laws and standards.
That anonymous complaints spurred the state investigation is even more disappointing. It is incumbent on the district to report potentially hazardous spills into a lake that’s not only enjoyed by swimmers, anglers and boaters, but is a backup water supply for its own customers.
Given its history, GCSD should be particularly aware of the state’s requirements and of its own responsibility to follow them to the letter.
In 1999, the district failed to immediately report a 46-hour, 1.3 million gallon sewage spill into First Garrotte Creek, which flows into Don Pedro reservoir. Former General Manager Ted Anderson, who pleaded guilty to criminal charges in connection with the case, resigned in its aftermath.
In early 2001 GCSD received a notice of violation from the water board saying the frequency and volume of raw sewage spills was unacceptable, noting that five incidents had been reported in the previous year.
A New Year’s Eve spill in 2005 put 50,000 gallons into Pine Mountain Lake, prompting one resident to demand that the district stop its “30-year history of spills.”
With such problems in its past, one would think GCSD would be particularly meticulous about both preventing spills and, if they happen, accurately reporting them.
The Aug. 20-22, 2010 episode, focus of the recent state investigation, was caused by failure of a lift station, the same thing that was blamed for several earlier spills and, according to one former director, a chronic problem.
The size of the spill, however, remained unclear for weeks.
Reporters acting on phone tips from area residents were told the spills were inconsequential.
On Nov. 1, a Pine Mountain Lake man wrote a letter to the editor referring to the spill as “serious” and suggested that failing to report it could be part of “an intentional coverup” aimed at influencing the district board election,
And on Dec.13, maverick GCSD Director Steve Perreira brought the issue of unreported spills to the board, but directors did no more than vote to create an incident report form for future spills.
Now the state is asking for a complete accounting of the August spill and others, complete with narratives, witnesses, names of responsible staff members and more. According to Lonnie Wass, a Water Quality Control Board, fines ranging up to $10 per gallons spilled could be assessed depending on the district’s liability.
GCSD Board Chairman Joe Riley has already expressed doubt about the state’s figures, and at a special meeting earlier this week, directors spent much of their time arguing over who should head an internal investigation of the leak.
At this point, however, the best course of action would be to be as open and forthcoming as possible with the water quality board.
But the two men who perhaps knew most about the spills are no longer with the district: Jim Goodrich, general manager at the time of the spills, has left GCSD, and Randy Klaahsen, district engineer during the same period, recently died of cancer.
To treat the allegations and mere technical violations, however, would be a mistake. Sewage spills, particularly in a popular lake, are a health hazard and are not to be treated lightly.
GCSD needs to take full responsibility for exactly what happened and focus its efforts on making sure the spills do not recur.