Sean Janssen, The Union Democrat

Nearly a decade's worth of sewage sludge illegally piled up and stored at Murphys Sanitary District is being removed this week.

The district has been given an Oct. 15 deadline to remove all of the sludge, which district staff believe is the culprit behind elevated nitrate levels detected in nearby groundwater samples.

As of Tuesday, 1,800 tons of sludge had been removed, according to Julio Guerra, the district's part-time general manager. Contractor Synagro, a Houston-based company with offices in Kern County, is excavating and hauling the sludge to an approved disposal site near Herald in Sacramento County.

The cost is $48.50 per ton and Guerra said there may be as many as 7,000 to 10,000 tons. A geologist is helping the district to establish that figure, which had been estimated at about 3,000 when the district budgeted $225,000 for the sludge removal in this year's budget.

The district could save as much as $30 to $40 a ton to remove the rest, Guerra said, after a resolution was passed Tuesday by the Calaveras County Board of Supervisors.

An emergency meeting of the Murphys Sanitary District board is scheduled for 8 a.m. Thursday to consider changes to the contract with Synagro that would allow for local disposal.

County supervisors elected to add Murphys Sanitary District to a list of approved special districts that may use its Rock Creek landfill to dispose of such "biosolids" and waive a fee schedule adopted in 2010.

The vote went 4-1 in favor of lending a helping hand to a district most supervisors agreed has been troubled for years.

"Anything that can possibly go wrong with a district has happened with Murphys Sanitary District … It had to do with the management that was occurring. That is not my charge, that's their charge to discuss," said Supervisor Merita Callaway, whose district includes Murphys. "I would like to see what we can do to help out a district that's in some dire need of some help."

Callaway went on to praise Guerra's work to get the district back on track since his January hiring. Guerra resigned last month, citing the job's stress but remains on an interim part-time basis as a private contractor employed by the San Andreas engineering firm Weber, Ghio and Associates. He also now serves as the contracted part-time chief plant operator for San Andreas Sanitary District.

Supervisor Tom Tryon, whose district included Murphys until redistricting about a year ago, said the district chose to rely on insufficient state grants rather than partner with Calaveras County Water District on its new Vallecito-Douglas Flat sewer plant to upgrade its system.

"At some time, the state has to realize any time they give a grant, they're bailing out a poorly managed (district) and their inefficiencies," Tryon said.

Supervisors Steve Wilensky and Darren Spellman also lamented the problems wrought by dozens of small water and sewer agencies in the county and their lack of an economy of scale.

"When one or another of them gets into disarray … things don't get done and we end up in this situation," Wilensky said.

"I don't know where the path to consolidation has a start or end … but I agree we need to head in that direction," Spellman said.

Supervisor Gary Tofanelli cast the dissenting vote.

He said deficiencies in the Murphys Sanitary District were obvious several years ago when he sat on the grand jury and before he came on the board. He preferred charging the $6 a ton rate in place before the fee schedule was set up in 2010.

"It seems this district is so small, it's so tiny, it's always looking for a bailout," Tofanelli said. "Is there any reason they can't pay the $6 (districts) were paying before? We're supposed to be equal. We're supposed to be fair to everyone who comes before this board."

Callaway and Public Works Director Tom Garcia agreed that a mitigating factor is that the sludge from Murphys Sanitary District must meet a higher level of quality to be used as landfill cover. The standard is higher than that in place in 2010.