Tahoe sewage spill hearing postponed
April 4, 2006
A hearing over the proposed $700,000 penalty for last summer’s sewage spill in Lake Tahoe along Kings Beach has been postponed until May.
The fine, if upheld, would be the largest penalty handed out by the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board in the Lake Tahoe Basin, according to the agency.
The water board delayed the public hearing, which was scheduled for April 12 and 13, because marine contractor Pacific Built, which punctured the underwater sewage line while building a pier on July 19, requested more time for one of their witnesses to recover from a health problem.
Pacific Built and property owners Geoffrey and Christine Davis and Hans and Margaret Coffeng, who hired the contractor to build the pier, are named in the complaint.
The defense has assembled a group of expert witnesses that will challenge the allegations of the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board, said Drew Briner, Pacific Built’s lawyer.
“The only story that has been told has come from the Lahontan [Regional Water Quality Control Board] and the North Tahoe PUD,” said Briner. “The hearing will provide an opportunity for the full picture to be seen.”
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Briner said an expert witness will challenge the estimate that 120,000 gallons of sewage flowed into Lake Tahoe from the punctured line. The defense estimates that only approximately 51,000 gallons of effluent flowed into the lake, according to Briner.
Four beaches were closed for 10 days and another one was shut down for 16 days during cleanup efforts.
Briner said that Pacific Built does not have the ability to pay a civil penalty.
“Pacific Built provides a valuable service,” said Briner. “It would be a shame to see them go out of business.”
The company also faces a $248,000 bill from the North Tahoe Public Utility District for the agency’s cleanup services. Pacific Built has not paid that money, Briner said.
He said the company did not violate a state law that requires contractors to call an underground service alert number before excavation, since there was no indication of a sewage main in the area.
The state statute only requires contractors to check with the number “if you knew or reasonably should have known” about underground utilities in the area, Briner said.
Two title searches on the property showed no sign of the 14-inch sewage main or of any easement, he said.
Lahontan water board supervising engineer Chuck Curtis said the $700,000 fine is being proposed simply because of the sewage spill, and is not connected to whether the contractor was required to call the underground alert number.
“Our allegation against the Pacific Built is not that they violated (the underground alter) law, but that they punctured the sewage main,” said Curtis. “They broke our regulations when they discharged sewage into Lake Tahoe.”
Meanwhile, Assemblyman Tim Leslie is stepping into the fracas over the sewage spill, demanding to know from water quality regulators why they issued a permit without informing the contractor of the sewer pipe.
Leslie says the pipe is clearly shown in an Army Corps of Engineers report that Lahontan Water Board helped develop.
In a letter to the Lahontan’s board, Leslie asked why the contractor was not informed about the sewer line.
“Is Lahontan obligated to ensure that the project areas they permit are clear of any potential hazardous spills?” Leslie wrote. “Was the public utility district ever notified of the approved project? If not, why were they not informed?”
Leslie also asked that the water board extend the public hearing long enough for the all parties to present their case in detail.
Sun News Service reporter Amanda Fehd contributed to this report.