Union Democrat staff

The California Water Resources Control Board recently issued a warning letter to the Groveland Community Services District saying it faces a $1.1 million fine for a pair of sewer spills in August 2010 and last March.

It will be handled as a civil matter, with the fine meant as a shot over the district's bow, according to one board official.

It's unfortunate on a number of levels.

It doesn't, for instance, provide a nuts-and-bolts remedy. It will buy no new trucks or lift stations or training for staff.

District rate payers will be stuck with the bill, while those in charge are not held accountable.

More-dramatic action at the top at GCSD is needed.

The state board letter, written by attorney Julie Macedo, blasted

GCSD's leadership for "a culture within the District of poor spill

management and cover-up over many years."

Pointing up the latter assertion are the wildly varying estimates of the August spill.

An April 15 letter to the state from GCSD's attorney provides a

Keystone-cop-like rundown of the initial spill investigation.

At 1:46 p.m. Aug. 20, a security guard at PML reported that a

"sewage cap" at a lot in the PML subdivision was missing and sewage was

flowing into Pine Mountain Lake. PML is used recreationally by area

residents and, as a tributary of the Tuolumne River, it later ends up

in San Joaquin Valley farm and municipal water systems.

The missing cap was spotted by a contractor working in the area, who called security.

Within a few minutes, a half dozen people at GCSD were alerted,

including then-general manager Jim Goodrich, according to the letter.

Three employees searched a lot in the area, where the leak

reportedly was spotted, and found no signs of a spill. Two workers

walked the sewer line looking for leaks from manholes upstream and

downstream and found nothing.

They figured a natural spring nearby was mistaken for a sewer leak, threw up their shoulders and left.

At 4:30 p.m. Aug. 22, PML security called to again report the spillage.

An on-call GCSD employee that Sunday met a property owner, found a

manhole lid covered in sewage and ran 100 yards downstream to a lift

station that was brimming with effluent (engineer talk for raw sewage).

A pump station had failed so it wasn't pushing sludge uphill like it should. So it kept piling up, and flowing over.

Chalk up the district's inability to find the leak sooner to bad

luck or incompetence. It's the followup that gets harder to explain.

GCSD didn't notify the Tuolumne County Health Department about the

leak until late October 2010. At that point, most of the evidence would

have been gone - cleaned up, diluted or washed way by rain (1.25 inches

fell between Oct. 4 and 7, and another 2.74 fell between Oct. 23 and

25, according to Union Democrat records).

The district originally estimated it was 10 gallons - a minor, if unpleasant event.

A formal GCSD report, claiming the leak was 50 gallons, wasn't given

to the department until November, according to Dr. Todd Stolp, the

county's public health officer.

The state Regional Water Quality Control Board - operating on a tip

not from the district, but from a concerned citizen - started

investigating around the same time and came back with an estimate that

10,000 to 15,000 gallons had spilled between Aug. 20 and 22.

The state's estimate was later revised upward - to about 60,000 gallons.

The board also figured the sewage reached Pine Mountain Lake, where

a spill that size (complete with noxious bacteria, viruses, molds and

toxic chemicals) would pose a very real health hazard.

It's the kind of spill the district would have needed to notify the

Health Department about ASAP. State law provides two days to report a

leak that may have reached a public waterway.

So, as the facts began to come out, the situation went from bad to worse. But it doesn't stop there.

A little publicized April 2011 report by a district consultant

looked at pump station volumes, duration of leak, etc. to come up with

an estimate of the spill.

It found the district could actually have unleashed 60,000 to

144,000 gallons (the latter if it started leaking Aug. 17, as the

experts at Kennedy/Jenks believe may have been the case).

If you have trouble picturing what 144,000 gallons of raw sewage

looks like, close your eyes, pinch your nose and then imagine every

man, woman and child in Tuolumne County holding up one-gallon jugs of

the filthy brown liquid in each hand. There'd still be so much left

over - that's only 110,730 gallons - you'd need all the adults in

neighboring Mariposa County to lend their hands too.

GCSD's general manager at the time, Jim Goodrich, paid upward of

$140,000 a year for his expertise, announced his retirement in early

September 2010. His job ended over the summer.

GCSD's new GM Gary Mello has defended the district to the best of his ability.

In a recent interview, he disputed the state's numbers (maybe he didn't see the district consultant's report?).

"I don't believe there was positive proof that any spill material

that may have come out of that lift station actually got into Pine

Mountain Lake," he said.

The full truth about what happened at Pine Mountain Lake that day -

and about the March 2011 spill near Moccasin, and other spills that may

have gone unreported by the district - needs to be disclosed.

The District Attorney or state Attorney General can and should step

in and take a deeper look at the actions of those at the top, and at

what Macedo characterized as the conspiratorial "culture" of "cover-up."

Should criminal stupidity or malfeasance be found, those

responsible (including former employees) should be prosecuted, fined,

and have their professional licenses pulled.

It's not the taxpayers who should suffer. Nor should they be

exposed to environmental hazards that GCSD officials continue to hide

from them.