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Pump Station Failures During Blackout Raise Questions About Backup Power

Audio

Aired 9/13/11

The power outage in San Diego County on Sept. 8 caused several sewage pumping stations to go offline, releasing millions of gallons of sewage into lagoons and waterways.

Normal Heights during the San Diego blackout on Sept. 8, 2011.
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Above: Normal Heights during the San Diego blackout on Sept. 8, 2011.

The power outage in San Diego County on Sept. 8 caused several sewage pumping stations to go offline, releasing millions of gallons of sewage into lagoons and waterways. The sewage spills closed beaches from La Jolla to Solana Beach, and along the Silver Strand south of Coronado.

San Diego Coastkeeper scientist Jen Kovecses said not all pump stations have backup generators. "Our understanding right now is that the cost-risk analysis was that for many of our pump stations it wasn't cost-effective to put backup generators and so we had this other system of backup for the pumps in the case of a grid failure," said Kovecses.

She said some officials called the outage a "once in a generation event."

"I think given our history in Southern California of problems with power failures is flippant at best and puts our environment and our security at risk," Kovecses said. "We know just a couple of weeks ago, a localized power outage caused a sewage spill that closed Cardiff State Beach."

She said San Diego Coastkeeper will work with regional and state agencies to determine how the pumps failed at two locations.

"Right now we're still in early days of collecting all the information about what exactly happened," said Kovecses. "Because clearly we have many pump stations that apparently don't have backup generators but only two of them had spills. So there's something specific that happened at those pump stations that caused these two problems in the Sweetwater River and the Los Penasquitos River."

Kovecses said the lack of capacity, power failure or other maintenance problems make sewage spills far too common along the California coast.

"It's part of the California life, that we have these rolling brownouts, we're at risk from earthquakes," she said. "I think the notion that somehow something like this will not happen again - just rolling the dice and hoping that won't happen - is not an appropriate response."

The San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board is responsible for investigation and enforcement of sewage spills and ensuring wastewater treatment collection systems are designed to prevent spills.

She said the agency meets Wednesday and Kovecses hopes more information will be available about what happened to cause the spills at the two pump stations.

The loss of power for many parts of the Southwest caused three major sewage spills in the San Diego and Baja region. In addition to the North San Diego County incident, about 120,000 gallons spilled into the Sweetwater River from a pump station near Interstate 5 and state Route 54 and an even larger spill south of the Mexican border, where Baja California officials reported a pump station lost power and sent 3.8 million gallons of sewage into the Tijuana River.

The spills come nearly two weeks after a 250,000-gallon spill into the San Elijo Lagoon. Authorities reported loss of power as the reason for all four sewage spills.

"City and state agencies are wagering human and environmental health against the odds of another emergency," said San Diego Coastkeeper's Executive Director Gale Filter in a news release. "They are gambling that some sewage pump stations aren't worth the investment of a proper emergency backup. Is one of these raw sewage pump stations in your neighborhood?"

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