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Preparing For Pump Station Failures

September 28, 2011 1:03 p.m.

The examination into a 3.2-million-gallon sewage spill begins at San Diego City Hall.

Guests

Gabriel Solmer is legal director for San Diego Coastkeeper

Chris McKinney is deputy director of San Diego's wastewater treatment and disposal program.

Related Story: San Diego Researching New Backup Power Plan For Water Facilities

Transcript:

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: Our top story on Midday Edition, the amount of sewage spilled as a result of the September 8th blackout has been revised upward. And not just by a little bit. We now know the spills were 75% bigger than originally reported. This is just one of the issues that will be discussed at a San Diego City Council committee this afternoon. The meeting will examine both the reasons for the sewage spills and the city's response. I'd like to welcome my guests; Gabriel Solmer is legal director for San Diego coast keeper. Welcome.

SOLMER: Thank you Maureen

CAVANAUGH: And Chris McKinney is deputy director of San Diego's waste water treatment and disposal program. Welcome to the show

MCKINNEY: Thank you very much

CAVANAUGH: Let me start with you, Chris. The official sewage spill amounts in the blackout have jumped from almost two million gallons to 3.5 million. Why such a big change?

MCKINNEY: Well, the originally estimates of 1.9 million and about 100 and 20,000 for the two spills, those were preliminary numbers that were part of a report to the regional quality control board developed over the first few days after the spill and based on field estimates, the staff we had in the field assessing the spills as they were going on. So by their very nature, they're visual, water is coming up out of the ground, so they're somewhat subjective. The new numbers, I shouldn't call them estimates, that are going to be part of our final report to the board are based on meter data from flow meters throughout the system. And that data takes a while to gather and analyze. That's why now almost two weeks, almost three weeks after the event itself, we're upgrading, unfortunately, the amount of spill.

CAVANAUGH: Does this trigger a penalty for the city?

MCKINNEY: The upgrade itself, no. The fact that the original estimate is different from our final number, which in itself would not trigger a penalty. Any decision by the board is going to be based on this final number. Changes in these volumes of spills reported, that's a fairly common circumstance. And as I said, simply because of the visual nature of the preliminary estimates, the final numbers are based on meter data, which is not subjective and under much more scrutiny and analysis

CAVANAUGH: I understand. Remind us where these spills took place

MCKINNEY: One spill occurred in Sorrento Valley.

CAVANAUGH: That's the major one

MCKINNEY: Pump station 64. That's the larger of the two, which was a 2.6 million gallon spill, spilled into Los Peñasquitos creek, which then flowed into the Los Peñasquitos lagoon, and into the ocean. The other spill of about eight helped and 70,000 gallons at pump station one, that spill occurred into the Sweetwater riff, close to the point where the river empties into San Diego bay. So it effectively spilled into the river and then into San Diego bay.

CAVANAUGH: What is the city public utility department going to tell the San Diego City Council committee today about why these spills occurred?

MCKINNEY: Well, the spills occurred, first and foremost, because of the blackout on September 8th. When the blackout occurred, many of our pump stations, in fact, all of our facilities, lost all electric power. These two facilities are facilities that relied on the EPA's design good lines, the decision made by the department on what sort of redundant power was necessary at these facilities relied on the EPA's guidelines for redundant power, and that is that we have two independent sources of power. That can be the SDG&E and the generator, or the two utility feeds. And the decision was made in the past to rely on two independent substations. So in a typical outage, you would lose one circuit and rely on the other to provide power. The event on the 8th was anything but typical in terms of the scope of the outage, so we lost all power to these facilities. In the absence of a backup generator, no power, no ability to pump. And so after a few hours, when -- given the time it takes to fill up the well at the end of the facilities and back into the system, we started to spill. ?

CAVANAUGH: Just a quick question before I go to Gabriel, Chris, did the other pump stations in the city, do Shay have back up generators?

MCKINNEY: 60 of those have either diesel or natural gas back up generators. These two spills occurred at two of our largest pump stations. Those pump stations do not all have backup generators on sight. They as I mention have these multiple SDG&E feeds coming into them, and that decision is based on a number of factors, the feasibility of having a generator in a relatively small space, the risk versus the cost of the generator. And those are things we're going to be looking at moving forward. An event like this causes you to take another look at your risk and exposure to that risk

CAVANAUGH: Gabriel Solmer, you will be attending this meeting this afternoon from what I understand, what are the main issues cost keeper wants to address?

SOLMER: I think this is a really good start. We're glad the city is having this meeting. It's absolutely the right thing to do now that we're about three weeks after this major event. And what we're looking for is the city to start asking and the staff to start answering these questions about pretty much three different issues. The actual investigation. So what happened, why did it happen, what were the issues? Take us through minute by minute, how did that happen? Then the cleanup. What were the cleanup efforts that were done after the spill? How could we improve upon those, and what still needs to be done? And then finally prevention. How do we make sure this never happens again? And I think that the city's preliminary report gives us a lot of information about the direction we want to go. We think that's the right direction. We want to make sure that this is a timely investigation, that we get the information quickly enough soy we can make sure this doesn't happen again. Unfortunately we've seen sewage spills, both the ones that Chris talked about, and others in the region increasing. And that's not the right direction we want that trend to be going.

CAVANAUGH: Coast keeper says it was the agency that alerted the city to the spill at Los Peñasquitos lagoon. How did that happen?

SOLMER: This is an interesting story. Coast keeper has the largest citizen monitoring program, a volunteer monitoring program that goes out to many of the water sheds in the county and we do routine monitoring. So it was a lot bit of good luck, and a lot of perseverance that we had a team out at one of our stations we monitor in Los Peñasquitos, and they went out on Saturday and they saw the spill, they called it into the city, called it into the regional water quality control board, and we're pretty sure that but for that intervention, that we wouldn't have had such a quick response both from the city and from the regular latory agencies

CAVANAUGH: I guess the question is, Chris, do you agree with that sequence of events? Is that how the city found out?

MCKINNEY: Well, the city knew that the spilling were happening as they were happening. In fact, with the Los of all power, we immediately started preparing for the possibility that these spills would not occur if power was not restored in time. It was not. So we knew the spills were occurring and we knew that the spill from pump station 64 would go into the Los Peñasquitos lagoon. What we were alerted by in the days after the fact was that sewage was in fact pooling in certain areas of the creek. There had been -- our belief at the time was that the sewage flowed through the creek into the lagoon and out to city. As we learned in the days following because of the topography at the bottom of the creek, it's not a lined creek, it's a natural creek, so with the topography of the creek itself, and the very low natural flow through the creek at this time of year, there were areas where sewage was pooling. And due to the difficulty of getting into this area, access is an issue into this area as I think coast keeper can attest, coast keeper and other citizens alerted us to different pools of sewage that were being observed in the field. And that's when the city realized we have an opportunity now that we didn't think we had before when we thought the sewage was dispersed, we have an opportunity to attack the spill at these areas where the sewage is pooling

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So as I understand what you're saying, the city was well aware that there was a sewage spill caused by the black out at this major pumping station. But you were expecting it to take a certain route through the creek into the lagoon out and that's -- and you didn't realize that it was actually pooling in the creek?

MCKINNEY: And it's also hard given the access limitations, this is an environmentally sensitive area so we can't just send crews of people through this relatively large area of the lagoon. So we had monitoring going on throughout the lagoon all through the weekend to try to determine where the sewage was. So I don't want to imply that we thought we knew where it was going and it went some place entirely different. We didn't realize that it was pooling. I think that's what was unknown to us until we were alerted of that fact

CAVANAUGH: Do you go with that, Gabriel?

SOLMER: I think one of the issues is that this pooling -- it was a good news, bad news story. It allowed the city because we alerted them to actually come in and start pumping out that sewage. That didn't occur for four days after the spill so we don't upon if that had happened sooner could we have gotten more of this out of the environment. But the good news is that it was pooled and so it didn't all make its way out to the ocean. We are seeing some of those effects now, and we've continued with our monitoring, so we can see some of those delayed effects. The problem is, when it pooled in the creek in these areas of low flow, you had at least two fish kills we observed where you had fish that were trapped in that area. The dissolved oxygen goes down in the water when you've got a sewage event, and unfortunately we had fish kills right on the steps of a state preserve. So it was good that we had that monitoring going on. We also have baseline monitoring for the last two years in that very area. So we know exactly what that area should look like. We think that would be helpful to the city in trying to reconstruct what the impacts of the sewage spill are and to the regional water quality control board as they investigate the issue.

CAVANAUGH: Chris, as I understand it, so far the assistant district attorney has pumped 15 million gallons out of Los Peñasquitos creek is that --

MCKINNEY: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: And the lagoon area?

MCKINNEY: That's correct

CAVANAUGH: How much money has been spent on the cleanup so far do you know?

MCKINNEY: I don't have a good number on how much money has been spent. We have had hundreds and hundreds of employee hours devoted to this cleanup over the past several weeks. I unfortunately don't have a good number in terms of cost

CAVANAUGH: Are there still areas that people should avoid?

MCKINNEY: All the beaches are safe. The postings have been removed. The no-water contact postings for the creek and the lagoon have been removed. And I should point out that the city's water quality data that -- the data that city staff have collected show the dissolved oxygen, ammonia levels, the PH, those important parameters that detect whether or not it can support life, those parameters are -- have returned to stream normal levels for that creek this time of year.

SOLMER: In fact, the city actually used coast keeper's baseline data to decide when to stop pumping when they had had the effect they wanted to have. We're now seeing that sewage that pooled in the creek make its way, what had not been pumped out, down into the lagoon. So we are seeing some pockets there, just depending on the hydrology and the flow. We're very glad that the regional water board has taken interest in this. They are the ones who will assess this, and actually hot off the presses, they issued today an investigative order to the city. They will have some of those timeframes. So I think that's something we will be talking about at the meeting today, how we move forward

CAVANAUGH: And Chris, as part of the report that your agency is going to be presenting to the committee today, are there any recommendations or is it just an analysis of what happened in this particular instance?

MCKINNEY: As far as recommendations for how to prevent something like this from happening, there are many options that the city could pursue. Backup generation at these facilities is a possibility. That would mitigate certain risks, such as the risk that led to this spill. But that mitigation of risk comes with a cost. And so what the department is going to be tasked with doing now is looking at all the options and determining what, if any level of risk is acceptable to the public, or I shouldn't say the department will be determining that. The department will tell the public for each option this is the risk. And then it will be up to the public, via community unions and elected officials, to determine, okay, this is the option we want. This option has a cost that we can bear and it lowers the risk to a level that we can accept. And that's really going to be the department's task going forward, is laying all these options out in cost and risk.

CAVANAUGH: Briefly, if you could, Gabriel, what are coast keeper's recommendations?

SOLMER: We want to see the recommendations that the city comes up with. But ultimately we want to move away from this fix on failure culture. We want to go back to the successes that we had in the decade 2,000 to 2009, we had a 90% reduction in sewage spills. That has crept up in the city over the last few years. We want to see recommendations that will move us away from accepting this level of risk and actually putting in solutions that will prevent these kinds of thing that happen in the future.

MCKINNEY: The number of spills that the city has had, obviously, taking out these two spills, these were major spills. So I do not want to try to minimize the effect of these spills. But spill numbers have continued to decline. These two spills are obviously a black mark on that record. But our total spill numbers and the volume of spills in the system as a whole have continued to decline. So I'm not certain what you mean when you say that numbers have climbed

CAVANAUGH: I have to tell you that we are out of time. But I want to let everybody know that this is exactly the discussion that you're going to be hearing at the city's natural resources and culture committee meeting. It's taking place this afternoon at 2:00 at San Diego City Hall. The meeting is open to the public. So if you're interested, show up. I've been speaking with Gabriel Solmer with San Diego coast keeper, and Chris McKinney, deputy director of San Diego's regional waste-water program

MCKINNEY: Thank you for the opportunity.