by ARNO HOLSCHUH
NOVEMBER 1998 WAS A WET month. More than 14 inches of rain dumped onto the streets of Eureka, washing the dust, dirt and cigarette butts off of sidewalks and streets and into storm drains. The city should have been cleansed. But a major storm between Nov. 21 and 23 had a very different effect on Eureka's streets and neighborhoods. Manholes overflowed and pump stations failed, pushing 169,000 gallons of raw sewage out of the wastewater system, into the open and eventually into Humboldt Bay. One spill, at the H Street lift station, lasted more than two days, spreading more than 100,000 gallons of the stuff. The city of Eureka's sewers were overtaxed. Required to operate beyond capacity, they failed.
It was a case of worst possible circumstances as millions of gallons of rainwater entered the wastewater system and caused the sewage equivalent to a heart attack. But on the North Coast, major rain events occur regularly and the spills in November 1998 weren't an isolated incident. In fact, the city has had 41 such spills -- called "bypasses" in the terminology of sewage collection -- since November 1997.
There haven't been any large spills so far this year. With rainfall for December 2000 and January 2001 at half of average, there hasn't been enough water to trigger a crisis. But history shows it could happen at any time; all Eureka needs is a heavy storm.
City officials maintain the system is working fine and improvements are underway. But the Environmental Protection Information Center in Garberville claims Eureka has been polluting neighborhoods and Humboldt Bay for years with its unsanitary sewers, and it intends to file a lawsuit to force the city to comply with existing environmental laws.
Eureka's sewage system, designed in the 1970s, collects wastewater from the city and, through the Humboldt Community Services District, its surrounding areas. Once in the lines, sewage is routed north to the old site of the Hill Street Treatment Plant, abandoned in the early 1980s. The sewage is then pumped back south again to the Elk River Treatment Plant. Along its long and winding way, the wastewater is pushed by several pump and lift stations.
While inefficient, the system works fine most of the year. But during storms, rainwater makes its way into the pipes, seeping through cracks in the collection system caused by minor earthquakes or flowing into a manhole left uncovered. In the system, rainwater multiplies the volume of wastewater it is required to transport five-fold, and when the pipes and stations can't keep up with the pace, it goes anywhere it can. Like out into the street.
Dave McGinty, community services director, calls sewage overflows a regrettable fact of life.
"Bypasses or overflows are not avoidable. We do lots of planning and what-ifs, but these are beyond our control," he said.
"The wastewater system is the system within city operations that we have the most confidence in," said Eureka City Manager Dave Tyson.
"Yes, there are times when there are glitches in the system," but the level of "glitches" is within acceptable limits. The wastewater system seen as a whole, Tyson pointed out, is a good one and includes an award-winning treatment plant that enhances degraded wetlands.
Eureka hasn't always sounded so assured about its system. A city brochure intended to raise funds for a new sewage system states that "future of the entire area is in peril, crippled by an aging sewage collection system that threatens public health, economic vitality and the rich diversity of life in and around Humboldt Bay." According to the brochure, the system is "overloaded," "inefficient" and "has not kept pace" with the region's growth.
The brochure should be viewed in context, said McGinty.
"It was written for an audience in Washington, D.C., to help a Northern California community get funding for a new system," he said.
The system is adequate, he said, but has room for improvement -- "like any community that has any water at all."
But comparisons with two neighboring communities show that Eureka is indeed unique. Based on the records available at the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board in Santa Rosa, Eureka has had 10 times as many bypasses as Arcata or McKinleyville.
This week the Environmental Protection Information Center is sending the city a 60-day notice of intent to sue over the wastewater failures. EPIC contends that the city has repeatedly violated the Clean Water Act by polluting streams and the bay with the sewage.
Cynthia Elkins, program director for EPIC, said the problem originally came to the group's attention because some of its members living in Eureka "had raw sewage in their yard." Several residents of the affected areas of town have lodged complaints with the city, ranging from toilets that wouldn't flush to one instance in which wastewater came out of asphalt patches that had been laid in the street.
The city's reponse is as bad as the overflows themselves, said one Eureka resident who declined to give his name. He lives on Vista Drive, a neighborhood with a history of sewage compaints. When there are overflows, he said, "none of my neighbors or I are ever notified."
Eventually the smell alerts him to the problem, but he said that people need the chance to respond -- by taking their pets inside, for instance.
McGinty said city workers respond in as quick and thorough a manner as possible, cleaning up the scraps of toilet paper left after a small spill or using a vacuum truck to remove larger spills. And the city is conscientious in its reporting.
"We notify [the Department of] Fish and Game, the county health department, the state health department and the water quality control board," he said.
McGinty said those agencies look at the location, volume and time of the spill and make a determination on what effects the spill has, particularly on the bay's oyster beds. The beds are closed to harvesting when there is a danger the sewage might be absorbed by the shellfish. But McGinty said the conclusion is always that the consequences of the spill are negligible.
"Sometimes when there are two inches of rain, the beds are closed -- because of the overflow from cow pastures," he said. "That has more of an impact."
EPIC's Elkins said Eureka's impacts are real, they just aren't being taken seriously.
"The threats to Humboldt Bay are huge and increasing. [The city] has a permit under the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System, and there are many provisions of that permit they have violated egregiously," Elkins said.
The Water Quality Board has responsibility for enforcing the city's permit and the permit says the city must "take all reasonable steps to minimize or prevent any discharge ... which has a reasonable likelihood of adversely affecting human health or the environment."
Tom Dunbar, senior resource engineer with the board, said he thought the bypasses "fall into that category," but he wasn't planning any enforcement action. The water board will be "talking to the city about some of the specifics," but had bigger fish to fry.
"Crescent City has a treatment plant that is at capacity and it is a growing community; Yreka has a plant that is at capacity," Dunbar said in a phone interview from Santa Rosa.
"I understand Eureka has had some problems," he said, but he has to prioritize because of limited staff and resources. "We work on the worst ones and don't have time to work on them all."
McGinty concedes the bypasses constitute violations. "Those are violations; they violate the permit the way it is written. But are they violations that could have been avoided? Are they violations for which we should have been fined?"
There is something the city can do to improve the situation -- in fact, city officials have already begun work. The Martin Slough Interceptor is a planned $10 million project that would install a large sewage line to pump wastewater directly to the treatment plant instead of around the city. It would reduce odors from the wastewater treatment plant by getting the sewage there quickly; increase the number of new sewage hookups allowed, a crucial step toward economic development; and allow for larger flows through fewer pump stations, lessening the bypass incidents.
The project was originally suggested in the 1980s, McGinty said, but was not built because the city decided to improve other parts of the sewage system. After heavy rains in 1996 and 1997 ended a 10-year drought, bypasses started to occur and the city reconsidered the interceptor.
"It has become a much larger priority," McGinty said, but not because he considers the current system inadequate.
"We look at it from an economic and engineering standpoint. There are a lot of cost economies involved." The energy savings reaped by shutting down 16 pump stations that currently push the water around the city are enough to make the project attractive, McGinty said.
The problem, said Elkins, is that it is not being done fast enough. She said the suit could be settled if action is taken to fix the problem.
"We would love to avoid going to court," she said. "It is a very costly and time-consuming way to go. If Eureka took steps in the next 60 days, we would be happy to sit down and talk to them about it. We'd have to see real actions -- money not just being allocated but being used, have a plan in the works, see them do mitigation.
"We would be looking for ways to prevent these violations from happening in the future," she said. "It seems like the city of Eureka has been dragging its heels."
The city has remedied some of the problems. The O Street pump station, which used to be a regular source of sewage spills, has had waste diverted from it to other stations and hasn't had a spill for a year. But the H Street lift station, which is often overloaded and has been the source of literally hundreds of thousands of gallons of sewage spills, has yet to be upgraded. All it would take is sufficient rain for another incident.
A big part of Elkins' problem with the city is a loan of $1.5 million taken from the wastewater reserve fund to be used for the construction of Eureka's new boardwalk. In an article she wrote for Wild California, the EPIC newsletter, Elkins lists the city's use of the funds for the boardwalk construction as a "violations against public trust."
Tyson said that while it is true the money was loaned from the city fund to the Eureka Redevelopment Agency, the underlying assumptions don't hold up. "The monies that were borrowed were from our reserves for wastewater treatment plant replacement," and couldn't be used to replace the existing collection system. The treatment plant won't need to be replaced for another 25 years.
"We have a capital replacement reserve for the wastewater operating system," which will include the Martin Slough Interceptor.
The city is pursuing funding from the EPA to help build the interceptor. It is seeking enough cash to pay for 55 percent of the project. The local match, $4.5 million, is either "in place or close to it," Tyson said.
And the project is moving along as quickly as it can, McGinty said.
"These projects don't happen all at once," he said, because of funding and regulatory issues. Eureka just received word it will be getting $483,900 from the EPA to fund the design process for the interceptor, but the money won't arrive for months. That design process is slated to continue into 2002, with construction completed in 2003 and the system finally operational in 2004.
Even that schedule is flexible, McGinty said, although he doesn't like it. "If I could build it myself, it would have been done yesterday, but you have all these regulatory agencies, the California Environmental Quality Act process, more environmental reviews and then engineering and design reviews. If we had our way we would do everything much quicker."
They will need to hold themselves to the fastest possible schedule or face fines from the Water Quality Control Board. Dunbar said that while Eureka is not yet a priority, that is mostly because the board thinks "they are moving forward in good faith."
"If they tell me it's going to take years and years we will be exerting some pressure."
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