My Turn: Details spill out at Lahontan hearing
I attended the Lahontan Water Board hearing concerning the sewage spill in Kings Beach. I went as an interested party because my wife’s brothers were the marine contractors who hit the sewer pipe while driving a pier piling.
I also went with an open mind because from what I had read in the papers it sounded like they made the major mistake of not calling underground service alert (USA) before digging and the fault was all theirs. I came away from the day-long hearing realizing that their mistake was relatively minor compared to the incompetence shown by other agencies and that the proposed $700,000 fine levied solely on them and the homeowners was unfair and out of proportion to their misfeasance.
The following are the facts that were presented at the hearing:
– The homeowners spent four years getting the required permits and not once did the sewer show up on their plans, nor did the easement show up on the two title reports the homeowners received when they bought the properties. TRPA has the Army Corps of Engineers study showing where all the sewer mains are around the lake and yet they didn’t alert the homeowner of their presence during plan review or site inspections. The Corps of Engineers was one of the permitting agencies, yet they didn’t warn the homeowners of the sewer main location it wasn’t shown on the plans.
– The calculations by Lahontan of the amount of sewage leaked in the lake was reported as 120,000 gallons. They admitted during the hearing that their calculations were inaccurate and that the maximum amount that could have left the pipe was 56,000 gallons. Because the pipe is below the maximum water level of the lake (6,229 feet) their definitions require them to say that everything that left the pipe was “released to the lake,” even though the actual lake level then was about 3 feet below the pipe. It finally came out in the hearing that at minimum 1,000 gallons and at the most 10,000 gallons of sewage actually mixed with lake water. (North Tahoe PUD says they vacuumed about 46,000 gallons at the site of the break before it could go into the lake.)
– When Lahontan calculates a fine it’s based on a starting point of a maximum of $10 per gallon of water discharged and then decreased by extenuating circumstances.
– North Tahoe PUD was called 10 minutes after the break, yet the flow from the break wasn’t stopped until five hours later. I’d assumed that the pipe was completely ruptured and that sewage was spewing out of an enormous opening under extreme pressures and would have been impossible to control without massive amounts of equipment and manpower.
At the hearing I learned the hole was less than 4-square inches (a crescent shape about half the size of a person’s hand) and that a competent sewage emergency response crew should have been able to excavate the area around the break and drive wooden wedges into the break to essentially stop the flow in about 35 minutes. The same crew should have been able to install a full circle clamp and completely (and perhaps permanently) repair the break in another 90 minutes. NTPUD’s emergency response plan calls for a full-circle clamp to be located at the Secline Pump Station.
Their testimony at the hearing was that they didn’t have one in their district and would have had to get one from a neighboring district or from a supplier and that that would have taken one to two hours. They decided not to exact temporary repairs but instead to cut out the section of pipe and replace it, which they couldn’t do until flow was stopped by transferring sewage around the break using vacuum trucks.
NTPUD appears to have done an excellent job of keeping sewage from getting into the lake by using vacuum trucks to suck it up after it left the pipe, unfortunately they did a poor job of stopping the discharge from the pipe, and that is what Lahontan’s fine is based on.
– The marine contractor did not call USA before they drove the pier pilings. Calling USA is the standard of the excavation industry when working on dry land. It is not the standard of the industry for marine work, as shown by the defense lawyers, who had testimony from four local marine contractors to that effect. The prosecution was unable to produce a single marine contractor who said they would call USA when they do work on the lake. Even for dry land work, the law is that a contractor must call USA if they have reasonable grounds to believe there are underground utilities located where they are digging.
These are the facts that convinced me that the fine was too high by about $650,000 and that something needs to be done to ensure that the same kind of tragedy doesn’t happen again. The agencies involved (in particular NTPUD and TRPA) need to improve their training and procedures so that the initial act doesn’t happen and so that the emergency response is effective.
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