RRWPC Newsletter, September 2023: Sewage spill penalties

Four years in the making, the ACL is finally here….The ‘Prosecution Team’ of the North Coast Regional Board has finally, after four years, completed their investigation into the enormous February/March, 2019 raw sewage spill by the Russian River County Sanitation District (RRCSD) near the Vacation Beach

pump station and Main Lift Staion. These spills are a recurring event spewing thousands of gallons of raw sewage into the river during almost every major flood over 40’.  The penalty this time is $1,215,937, but the maximum liability was $8,906,640.  We are concerned that this minimal penalty will be taken as a slap on the wrist and that filthy spills will continue to happen. If ratepayers didn’t have to pay the bill each year, we would have said the penalty should have been much higher.

The ‘Team’ negotiated terms of the penalty with representatives from Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA), operators of the system, after supposedly analyzing and estimating the amount of harm caused by the raw sewage spills. They took a limited amount of water samples which were reported as measuring >1600 MPN/100mL with no indication of how high the bacteriological sample went. They also didn’t test for many toxins such as pesticides, herbicides, etc., so the toxic flood water mixed with toxic raw sewage making the mess even more toxic than before.  Because floods fill in many places that are normally expected to stay dry, they carry with it many different kinds of unmonitored toxic substances not meant to end up in the water.

The “Team” assigned penalties in the form of an Administrative Civil Liability penalty (ACL), but did not consider any of the concerns raised in our complaint.  Because of this we need your help announcing to the County and Regional Board, whether or not you are ratepayers in the sewer district, that you want operators to get the strong message that they cannot continue ignoring the system’s failures forever.  Page 13 of the document, “Specific Factors Considered in Calculating Proposed ACL” states, “…the spills demonstrate or are a consequence of the Dischargers’ continued failure to invest in system improvements and other measures to prepare for and respond to raw sewage spills from its collection system during periods of heavy rainfall.”

And yet, and here’s the most egregious part, not one dime of the penalty is planned to go for repairs to this failing system.  Instead, the ACL describes an alternative project that can utilize most of the penalty and may solve the needs of other communities by looking at wastewater disposal options for other West County areas.  These projects could also change the current rural ambiance of our beautiful area into having more of an urban focus.  (Proposed housing legislation could soon do away with many land use restrictions protecting fire areas and other health and safety considerations.)  In fact, the State has already required designation of multiple unit housing sites that may pop up in inappropriate areas.  Our freedom to express our concerns about what can be built in our neighborhoods is gradually being taken away from us.

If significant response from the community merits it, the Regional Board may hear public comments on the ACL at a North Coast Board meeting after the comment period ends on September 28, 2023. We want to make that happen and we urge you to sign and send the enclosed letter or write your own asking for a meeting by September 25th. The public has until the deadline to weigh in on the appropriateness of the penalty.  Our group has very serious reservations about the methods they used and the type of project selected by the County to deflect most of the monetary penalty determined by staff.  Here are links to documents regarding this action in case you want to read further; they are not very long.

Notice of Proposed Settlement | California Northcoast Regional Water Quality Control Board

Proposed Order R1-2023-0049

Attachment A (Methodology)

Attachment B (Enhanced Compliance Action)

General Background of a very serious situation….Initially in 1976, in order to cut costs, plans for our new sewer motivated poor design and construction in some locations.  For instance, the force main pipeline that is now failing was made with substandard steel materials.  For narrative of early problems and system failures you can find a link on RRWPC Home Page at top of side bar:  www.rrwpc.org   where you can open document entitled Russian River County Sanitation District’s History of Sewage Spills:   1985-2021.  That document spells out much of the system’s history and the vast number of raw sewage spills into the river.  The worst ones mostly occurred during major flood events.  To give an idea of our current situation, we found this quotation by West Yost in their assessment of current problems and specifically regarding the force main river crossing pipe: “….the Main Force Main river crossing is vulnerable  to potential ground deformation, liquefaction, and lateral spread of soil around the pipeline.  Any damage to the force main would result in a severe limitation in sanitation service for residents and businesses in the District service area.”

In reality, the already highly toxic floodwater, which probably had sewage from many different sources, caused rainwater to become toxic, and when joined with other sewage, turned into a more, not less toxic soup.  But the outcome for residents was that the local streets were filled with slimy sludge and included bits of toilet paper and feces. (pictures on side bar on website) It was a week, after many requests, before RRCSD/SCWA staff cleaned up the street.  There is evidence that the surging manhole regurgitating raw sewage was going for four days and not two days as reported on official documents.

$47M needed for repairs to 11 pump stations, and extensive force main, etc.In one section of the ACL, the Regional Board determines the degree of culpability of the violator.  It was determined that circumstances in this spill were similar to circumstances in 2017 and that no improvement had occurred to ameliorate conditions that caused the spill.  Other deficiencies were found as well.  Here are some of the complaints in the ACL:

  • Inadequate funding spent to address aging infrastructure between 2017 and 2019,
  • Inadequate wet weather collection system capacity to handle peak wet weather,
  • Inadequate routine maintenance of Rio Nido pump station and,
  • Failure to describe protocols for recovering sewage discharged into water bodies and more….

But then the “Team” determined that because the dischargers do not have a history of violations in the last five years, they applied a neutral value to this factor.  Yet this section had determined that based on actions in 2017 when there was a similar situation, did nothing to fix the problem in 2019 and they were criticized for that.  Even then, they were given a similarly moderate rating.  There was no mention that three of the years were drought years and there are never winter spills during drought years because there is little water and the river doesn’t flood.

And yet, to be honest, the more they twist the logic, the less money the district has to pay and the final liability amount came to $1,215,937.  So the big question is: will the severe degradation of the system causing those failures and spills into the river lead to more and higher fines in the future.  The fees will keep going up and up and up anyway.  The only hope is for the Agency to come up with Federal Grant Funds to pay the $47 million to fix the system properly.

RRWPC needs your continued support!  Donor contributions sustain our independent river protection work. We rely exclusively on six (or fewer) mailers a year for our entire fiscal support and we can do so because we are primarily a volunteer organization. We appreciate any amount you can contribute. Donations may be sent via mailed check (with card and envelope provided) or by using PayPal at our website.   We recently placed asterisk(s) by the last names of those who have not contributed in two or more years: one asterisk indicates most recent donation was given in 2021, two indicate most recent in 2020, and three indicate most recent in 2019.  At the start of 2024, if we have not heard from you, people with two or three asterisks will be removed from our list, as we will assume you are no longer interested in our work.  (Occasionally we do make mistakes.  If you have sent a donation that did not get entered, please notify us by letter or email and we will check our records and make correction.)   Also, we have been getting mail from other box holders in our P.O. Box 501 and that makes us wonder if other people are getting our mail.  PLEASE let us know if you move and also contact us if you sent a donation and check doesn’t clear, and/or you receive no Thank You letter within 5 weeks.    Thank you for your loyal support.