California City Sued Over Sewage Spills

Feb. 12, 2008
Burlingame, Calif. being sued by environmental group

The nonprofit environmental group Baykeeper is filing suit against the city of Burlingame, Calif., charging that the city's sewer system frequently spills raw sewage onto city streets and that over the past 16 years its treatment plant illegally discharged more than 10 million gal of wastewater into the bay, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

The suit seeks to force the city to be more aggressive in fixing its sewer pipes and stop illegally discharging water near Coyote Point, Program Director Sejal Choski said.

In recent weeks, two large sewage spills in Marin County discharged more than 5 million gal of sewage into sensitive tidal marshlands and Richardson Bay.

The spills, on Jan. 25 and 31, both occurred after heavy rains dumped a large amount of water into the Sewerage Agency of Southern Marin in Mill Valley. In both cases, public notification about the spills was delayed, the newspaper reported.

Along with the lawsuit, Baykeeper is launching a new campaign, Sick of Sewage, to educate Bay Area residents on how to decrease their sewage loads during large storms. It will also investigate Bay Area sewage agencies with a history of spills, including the Marin facility, Choski said.

"The sewage problem in the Bay Area is not a one-time occurrence by Southern Marin. It's something that happens quite frequently throughout the Bay Area in everyone's backyards," Choski said. "[We want] regulatory agencies to realize if they don't take aggressive action, Baykeeper has in the past and is ready to keep doing so."

Raw or partially treated sewage contains bacteria, viruses, parasites and dangerous chemicals, and can cause a variety of illnesses. The Richardson Bay Audubon Center & Sanctuary recently reported a spike in dead birds found near the center in Tiburon, a possible impact of the sewage spills, the newspaper reported.

Choski said Baykeeper has been investigating wastewater issues for a decade and filed a claim with the city of Burlingame in October as a precursor to the lawsuit. The suit, filed in federal court in San Francisco on Feb. 11, names the city of Burlingame, as well as Veolia Water North America, the company contracted to run the city's wastewater treatment plant, according to the newspaper.

The lawsuit also says the city has failed to maintain its sewer system, resulting in frequent overflows that Burlingame does not always report to the regional water board. The nonprofit also alleges that the city discharges wastewater including "unacceptably high amounts of human waste, bacteria and chemicals" into the bay through an illegal pipeline during heavy rains, the newspaper reported.

The lawsuit says the alleged discharge has totaled more than 10 million gal since 2002 and is made worse because it occurs in "very shallow water and receives virtually no dilution."

According to the lawsuit, the overflows and discharges violate federal law and the city's permits, and Baykeeper is seeking penalties that would be used for bay restoration projects, Choski said.

Burlingame City Council approved a $100 million improvement plan for the sewer system several years ago, the paper reported. In October, Burlingame Public Works Director Syed Murtuza told the Chronicle that the city spends an average of $3.7 million a year on those improvements, but cannot do them all at once. Murtuza also said he was unaware of an illegal pipeline near Coyote Point, the paper reported.

"They're putting money into the system, but we don't necessarily think it's enough or that it's funding the right projects," Choski said.

Sewage agencies in the nine-county Bay Area region are regulated by the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, which is investigating the spills. Additionally, the state Environmental Protection Agency and the Sewerage Agency of Southern Marin are conducting probes, the paper reported. State Sen. Carol Migden, D-San Francisco, has announced she will look into the incident, as well.

Since the Jan. 31 spill, authorities have conducted regular testing at beaches and streams near the Mill Valley plant, and nearly all the locations were deemed safe for recreational water contact and sport fishing, the paper reported.

Source: San Francisco Chronicle