Investigation into sewage spill underway
Beaches remained closed in Kings Beach this week after 120,000 gallons of raw sewage spilled into Lake Tahoe last Tuesday when a contractor accidentally struck a 14-inch sewer main line while building a private pier. Officials of various agencies have said their first concern is the health of the public and to get the beaches back open, but an investigation has begun as to what led to the construction mishap.”The investigation will be extensive,” said Julie Regan, communications director for the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, noting that there are a lot of files and paperwork to look through and that the situation is complex. “It will definitely take time. It’s a serious situation and we want to make sure the investigation is thorough.”Regan said TRPA is working “hand in hand” with the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board. Lauri Kemper, a division manager for Lahontan, said no one agency has taken the lead in the investigation and that all the agencies are currently working together.”The incident is continuing until the beaches are clean,” Kemper said.The pier being built was to be shared by property owners Geoff and Christie Davis and Hans and Margaret Coffeng. Leah Kauffman, a land use planner, consulted on the project for five years and submitted applications to the TRPA, Lahontan, the California Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers. Kauffman said a sewer line was not indicated on the map or documents submitted to the various agencies because she did not know it existed.”As a responsible land use planner, we rely on information received from our clients including title reports, surveys prepared by licensed professionals, review of TRPA files and documents and visits to the site,” Kauffman said Tuesday. “We physically inspected the site including the surrounding area to determine if there were any ‘red flags’ to which we should be alerted as to any matters affecting land use and/or the project. There was nothing on the beach to suggest the presence of any kind of sewer, as the utility box and manholes for these properties are located on the highway.”Kauffman added that the title reports her clients were given when they bought their homes did not indicate there was an easement for a sewage line.”There was nothing in the record of the sewer line’s existence,” Kauffman said. “My clients were not notified. They had no knowledge.”Kemper confirmed in a statement that there may not be a recorded easement in the project area.”We are investigating the situation,” Kemper stated. “We do not have complete information concerning easements on the property.”Steve Rogers, general manager of the North Tahoe Public Utility District, said the sewer line was built in 1969, and was located four to six feet underground. In the 1960s and 70s, sewage tanks were moved out of the area and the sewer lines were placed around the lake. They did not know at the time that many of lands where the pipes lay are fragile, Regan noted.”It is extremely expensive to relocate the lines,” Regan said, noting that there are 900 miles of sewer lines around Lake Tahoe. “It (the incident last Tuesday) really reinforced what we were concerned about and showed the need (to move those lines). There wasn’t common knowledge (when the sewer lines were laid down) that there were fragile areas.”Rogers said it will take $90 million to replace all the lines and he does not know who will pay for the relocation. Local utility agency officials and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were in a meeting last Tuesday discussing the lines when the spill happened, Regan said. BEFORE THE DIRT IS TURNEDAnother issue of concern is that Pacific Built, the contracting company from Tahoe City that mistakenly hit the sewer line, did not call the Underground Service Alert hotline required by state law before the dig. USA North, the company that operates the hotline, notifies all USA members of the project who may have underground facilities at the project site when the contractor calls. “As licensed excavators, they are required by law to call anytime they break ground anywhere,” said Kristy Aldrich, spokesperson for USA North. Aldrich said those who do not call can incur penalties of $10,000 to $50,000 on up, with the local permitting agency giving out the fine.However, Pacific Built’s lawyer, Drew Briner, said he is researching whether his client had an obligation to call the hotline.”It is an unfortunate incident,” said Drew Briner, Pacific Built’s lawyer. “It is not an absolute duty to call USA. That legal issue will be answered once information is gathered. There is a legal question of whether they had the duty to call.”WAITING TO OPENOn Friday, two inches of sand were removed in the vicinity of North Tahoe Beach where raw sewage was on the beach. Approximately 200 yards of sand were removed and trucked to the landfill, according to the North Tahoe Public Utility District. Workers also vacuumed water that remained in beach ponds after the spill. Waves and the sun’s UV rays will kill the bacteria that exist in the water and sand, NTPUD officials said. The sand removal allows sunlight and UV rays to penetrate deeper into the sand and kill bacteria that may be present. NTPUD and Lohontan are continuing to take daily water samples to determine when the beaches can reopen. “Officials must receive two consecutive tests within the acceptable range in order to reopen lake access,” the NTPUD said in a statement. “The acceptable range for Lake Tahoe is more stringent than federal standards due to the lake’s normal clarity. The initial test information continues to show levels of contamination that are above acceptable levels.”Agencies involved in managing the incident include the NTPUD, Palar County, Lahontan, TRPA, the North Tahoe Fire Protection District, the California Department of Fish and Game and the North Lake Tahoe Resort Association. On Saturday, officials opened the sandy beach portions from Secline Beach to the Coon Street Boat Launch, and the parking lot and picnic area of North Tahoe Beach. Large signs warned beachgoers that the water was still off limits, but that did not stop Matt Fleming of Huntington Beach, Calif., from going into the water in Kings Beach.”I had my reservations, but I made the decision to go in,” Fleming said Sunday. “Anytime it rains in Southern California, the beaches close two to three days. They have low standards there. You guys have higher standards, which is why it is closed longer. I am taking my chances.”Sam and Ursula Navarra of Reno said they decided to visit Kings Beach despite the closure of the beaches and enjoyed a picnic on the grass at North Tahoe Beach Sunday.”We got the whole beach to ourselves,” Sam Navarra said. “It is nice and quiet. We don’t go in the water anyways.”Butch and Suzanne Coglitore flew in Saturday night from New York, and had not heard about the sewage spill, but enjoyed laying on the grass.”We are making the best of it,” said Suzanne Coglitore, who had never been to Tahoe before. “Tahoe is gorgeous. We are just enjoying the view.”For updated information on when the beaches will reopen, call 584-1500 or visit http://www.ntpud.org or http://www.placer.ca.gov.