There’s more to the story behind the spill | SierraSun.com

There’s more to the story behind the spill

Jenn Ragan
My Turn

As everyone knows, there are two sides to every story. This is Pacific Built’s side and the actual truth.

Some of the people feeding the media were less than honest. First, telling the public that 120,000 gallons of raw sewage flowed freely into Lake Tahoe for hours is ludicrous to me as well as five “engineers” coming up with a number over twice the actual amount of sewage that was released. I saw e-mails between the engineers from North Tahoe PUD and Lahontan questioning each others’ numbers.

It shouldn’t have been a surprise that the original number splashed around in the media for nearly a year was disproved. Second, most, if not all, of the sewage released was contained on the beach in the vactors or susceptible to clean up.

The public’s perception of this accident is that 56,000 gallons of toilet paper and solid waste went directly into the lake. All of the agencies involved wanted the public to believe there was a high health risk if they went into the water. But if that was the case why do we have pictures of a Lahontan employee testing the water two days after the spill barefoot?

One of the most important pieces of information the NTPUD neglected to tell the public is that they treat sewage at the Secline pump station with chlorine to kill the smell and some bacteria, so to call it “raw” wouldn’t be the truth.

Pacific Built repeatedly asked NTPUD if they could expose the pipe to assess damage so the flow could be stopped or abated. They were told no numerous times. A wooden stake could have been pounded into that four-square inch gash within minutes to significantly reduce flow.

NTPUD even failed to follow its own emergency response plan by not having in stock an emergency clamp to fix that pipe. Tahoe City PUD had one but it wasn’t used. When asked at a later date why this clamp wasn’t used, the general manager said “it would not be cost effective.”

Lahontan’s whole case was based on the fact that Pacific Built didn’t call USA Digs prior to driving piling. The law states that contractors must call if they believe or have reason to believe there is an underground utility in the area to be excavated. Pacific Built had no idea there was a force main under the beach below the high-water mark of Tahoe.

They did several site evaluations. Nothing was on either of the homeowners’ title reports; they had all of the permits required for the pier (it took four and half years to get them); they even had their pre-grade meeting with TRPA where the representative from TRPA stood on top of the sewer line and said he didn’t foresee any problems.

People that aren’t in excavating believe that calling USA is a guarantee that nothing will get hit. NTPUD doesn’t even mark lines on private property, which is where this accident occurred.

Marked lines get hit all the time. Accidents happen.

One of the permitting agencies on the project was the Army Corps of Engineers. They put out a study in April 2003 mapping all sewer lines in the Tahoe Basin. This report was given to TRPA, Lahontan and all the utility districts in the Basin. Three of the permitting agencies had the maps in their possession and none, in a four and a half year period, thought it was worthwhile to look at those maps and see if there were going to be any obstructions on this project.

The Shorezone Review Committee saw this pier come before their board twice and no one said anything. There was a severe break down in the system and it’s a shame that something like this had to happen before anyone realized it.

One of the owners of Pacific Built asked a Lahontan lawyer why no one said anything about that line. He was told that their agency gets several reports a year and that they just don’t have time to read them all. I spent two days in the Lahontan office in South Lake Tahoe and was appalled by the lack of work they get done. Instead of making Starbucks runs, maybe they could sit down and read some reports. I did.

The public needs to trust the agencies whose missions are to protect the lake. The agencies aren’t taking any responsibility for this breakdown in the system. Instead of working with contractors around the Basin to make sure that something like this never happens again, the people with the maps are mandating that marine contractors call USA, so when a line doesn’t get marked because NTPUD doesn’t mark on private property, the agencies will be more than happy to collect fines.

This ordeal was settled not because Pacific Built wanted to, they had to because of their insurance. They would have loved to have gone to a court of law where the judge, jury and prosecution aren’t the same people (Lahontan) and where they would’ve had more than an hour to make their case. When the livelihood of five families depends on this family-run company, an hour seems a bit inadequate.

Thank you to everyone who supported Pacific Built and the Ragan Family.

Jenn Ragan and family are owners of Pacific Built.