Utility district board OKs sewage spill query
January 17, 2007
An independent investigation of the North Tahoe Public Utility District’s emergency procedures will be conducted after a local petition questioned the district’s response to the 2005 sewage spill in Kings Beach.
The utility’s board voted unanimously Tuesday to evaluate the district’s actions following a rupture of the main sewer line in July 2005 in Kings Beach. An investigator will be hired to recommend how the district can improve its procedures.
The issue was brought up after the Ragan family, which owns Pacific Built, Inc., presented the board with a petition in December signed by 69 individuals asking the board to consider an investigation and procedural changes to help prevent future sewage spills.
A Pacific Built worker punctured a buried sewer main line while building a private pier for two homeowners on July 19, 2005 in Kings Beach. The spill caused 56,000 gallons of sewage to go onto the beach and into Lake Tahoe. Beaches were evacuated and closed for up to 16 days, with local businesses in Kings Beach and Tahoe Vista reporting a loss of $80,000 as a result of the discharge.
“They need to be better prepared,” Jenn Ragan said of the district. “We felt there were things that could have been done and should have been done to stop that much sewage from going into the lake.”
Pacific Built questioned the district’s procedure of pumping out the sewage instead of using a clamp to stop the spill and not allowing the contractor’s crews to help stop the leak. An investigation by the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control board found the North Tahoe Public Utility District was not at fault.
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Although the contractor did not call a mandatory underground utility hotline before digging, Pacific Built and the homeowners questioned why the permitting agencies did not notify them that underground utilities below the high water mark existed. The permitting agencies, including the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency and the water board, now stipulate in their permits that the toll-free number must be called prior to digging.
A $325,000 settlement was reached in October by the Lahontan board, the property owners and contractor, which included buying a piece of equipment for the district that would help in emergency situations. The settlement also resolved a lawsuit filed by the utility district against Pacific Built and the homeowners.
However, the Ragans pushed for an investigation of the district’s procedures, collecting signatures for their petition from community members last month. Pacific Built Vice President Luke Ragan and his wife, Jenn Ragan, said they were pleased with the board’s decision.
Lee Schegg, North Tahoe Public Utility District public works director, said he stands behind the district’s actions during the spill, but an independent investigation “can only benefit the community and the environment.”
He said once someone is hired, the investigation could take up to six months to complete. District staff will find people who fit the qualifications to conduct the investigation and then the board will vote on the prospective candidates at its February board meeting.
“For us not to do it, it doesn’t bode well for the district. We have to evaluate everything we do,” said Board President Lane Lewis. “I think our public needs to feel good about the job the North Tahoe Public Utility District did.”
Board member John Bergmann said the district has had third parties conduct investigations in the past and that it is important to continue to develop operational procedures.
All five board members said the investigation would help in any possible future incidents.
“I am absolutely thrilled,” said Leah Kaufman, a land use planner who helped the homeowners secure the pier permits. “As a community member, I am more than thrilled that the NTPUD made this decision because it will be a help for future incidents.”
Board members discussed and approved the motion in closed session, in anticipation of possible litigation.