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SEWAGE DISCHARGE INTO THE AMERICAN RIVER

Subject of Investigation

Accidental discharge of sewage into the American River.

Reason for Investigation

The Grand Jury learned, from a news article, that on September 7, 2000, raw sewage began to be discharged into the American River. Despite the efforts of witnesses to report it, several days elapsed before the source of the flow was discovered. and the flow into the river was shut off on Sunday, September 10th.

Method of Investigation

Members of the Grand Jury interviewed city, county and state officials, as well as members of the public who happened upon the site of the incident.

Information was obtained from a comprehensive report of the incident submitted by the City of Sacramento Department of Utilities to the Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB) and an analysis of the incident prepared for the City of Sacramento by that Board.

Background

In June 2000, the City of Sacramento began work to upgrade the combined sewer system in an older part of the city. It contracted with a private firm for construction work and with a private consultant for full time, on site inspection. City staff assigned to the project included a project manager and part time inspector.

In order to permit installation of a new section of pipe, the flow from the existing sewer had to be diverted using a bypass pump. On September 7, 2000, by mistake, the pump hose was placed in a storm drain maintenance hole instead of a sewer maintenance hole, causing raw sewage to flow into an underground chamber from where eventually it would be pumped into the American River.

According to an official report, the contract inspector hired by the city was not on duty on September 7th and 8th when the improper connection was made. When he returned to the job on September 9th he checked it out, saw the alternate bypass in operation, but did not see that it was improperly connected.

Two days later, on Saturday, September 9th, two fishermen on the river detected a foul odor and traced it to the discharge. They searched the telephone directory for a local or state government office to call to report it. However, as city, county and state offices were closed, they were unable to reach anyone until Sunday when they reached the City's 24-hour operator. She referred them to the Fire Department and to the California Department of Fish and Game. A Fire Department employee responded to the reported scene but did not see visible evidence of a hazardous situation. Altogether, the two witnesses estimated having placed more than 20 calls before reaching someone who could be of assistance.

On Sunday, September 10, the City's on-call supervisor responded to a telephoned odor complaint that had been received by the City operator the night before. The supervisor had been contacted by the operator on Saturday night and elected not to investigate until the next day.

At about noon on Sunday, the supervisor determined that there was sewage in the storm drain system and immediately shut down the pumps to halt the bypass operation. This occurred at about 1:30 p.m. By that time, 944,000 gallons of contaminated drainage water had been discharged into the American River.

According to the report of the RWQCB, there were no reported ill effects to any person's health. Monitoring the river water showed no pollution, as measured by an increase in chlorine demand during the three days following the spill. Water samples did not show a higher count of coliform bacteria than are normally found in urban runoff.

Conclusions

It appears that there was a lack of adequate supervision of the work being done on the day the error occurred that precipitated the event. However, once the problem was discovered by the city inspector, the City acted promptly and responsibly, turning off the sump that was pumping the sewage from the underground receptacle into the river, removing sewage that had not yet been pumped out and cleaning out the lines.

The emergency response system for this kind of incident was inadequate. The difficulty witnesses trying to report it had in finding someone who could take responsibility demonstrated this.

Findings and Recommendations

Finding #1: Witnesses had difficulty finding telephone numbers for the appropriate officials to call to report what they saw. Because most offices were closed for the weekend, witnesses were frustrated in their efforts to speak directly to someone who could deal with the problem. In some cases, they received a recorded message telling them to call back during normal business hours. In other cases, there was no response at all.
Recommendation #1: Emergency numbers for both the City and County, for nonlife-threatening emergencies should be clearly and easily identified in the public telephone directory and be answered by a person, not a recorded message.

Finding #2: The State and City personnel contacted by the witnesses were not able to direct callers to the appropriate agency.
Recommendation #2: City and County 24-hour operators should be aware of the functions and responsibilities of departments within their jurisdictions that respond to hazardous, nonlife-threatening incidents. They should have the numbers of responsible on-call personnel available to provide a more immediate and direct response.

Finding #3: This kind of sewage discharge incident is avoidable and carries the risk of endangerment to public health as well as a fine imposed on the City by the State.
Recommendation #3: The City should review its procedures with respect to oversight of private contractors, particularly with regard to any work which is or could be environmentally sensitive.

Response Required

Penal Code Section 933.05 requires that specific responses to both the findings and recommendations contained in this report be submitted to the Presiding Judge of the Sacramento Superior Court by September 30, 2001, from:

    · Sacramento City Manager: Recommendations 1,2, and 3
    · Sacramento County Executive: Recommendations 1 and 2


 
2000/2001 Sacramento County Grand Jury - Final Report (Internet Version) June 30, 2001

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