Regulators find violations at South County sewage treatment plant

clambert@thetribunenews.comDecember 18, 2012 

Just a few months after a South County wastewater treatment plant was slapped with a $1.1 million fine for a large sewage spill in Oceano, several other problems have been discovered at the facility.

The Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board issued a notice of violation Tuesday after regulators said they found “areas of vulnerability” at the South San Luis Obispo County Sanitation District’s wastewater treatment facility.

In addition, a federal agency noted two problems in a report issued earlier this year.

John Wallace, administrator of the sanitation district and president of San Luis Obispo-based Wallace Group, said some of the issues raised in the water board’s report are being addressed, while others were potential misunderstandings between plant staff and inspectors.

Wallace said he wished he could have met with water board staff before it issued the letter “because I think we could have clarified some of what appears to be misunderstandings in the letter.”

The water board found several issues, including a lack of alarms on critical equipment, use of unqualified personnel to perform chlorine-handling operations, and the way biosolids (processed wastewater solids) are stored at the sewage plant.

In addition, the water board is concerned about three recent samples that tested higher than they should for fecal coliform bacteria, indicating that the disinfection process wasn’t adequate.

The sanitation district is now required to respond with a technical report by Feb. 1. Failure to do so could result in fines of $1,000 to $10,000 a day per the California Water Code.

“We will comply and furnish the necessary reports and meet with them in the meantime,” Wallace said.

The sanitation district’s three-member board meets tonight in Oceano, where it will consider two items specifically addressed in the notice of violation: installing alarms on chemical pumps, and implementing a new, temporary way to deal with the biosolids.

The district’s attorney, Michael Seitz, was more critical of the regional water board, which he said has become more aggressive in issuing violations rather than first sitting down to resolve issues collaboratively.

“It is unfortunate that instead of communicating with us in terms of these types of issues, they choose to confront instead of resolve,” he said.

Sewage spill fine

The notice of violation comes just a few months after the regional water board voted to issue a $1.1 million fine for a large sewage spill in December 2010, in which an estimated 674,400 gallons spilled into the plant and into an Oceano neighborhood after heavy rains.

The sanitation district has appealed the penalty, arguing that the spill happened because of a series of unforeseen events beyond the district’s control.

The wastewater treatment facility serves about 38,000 residents in Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach and Oceano.

EPA report

An inspector contracted with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found two issues in the 12 areas he evaluated at the sewage treatment plant in March, and issued a separate report earlier this year.

Most areas — including an assessment of the plant’s laboratory operations and maintenance issues — received a “satisfactory” rating.

However, the inspector noted two problems. One was that piles of biosolids were stored on a porous surface next to the Arroyo Grande Creek levee, about 45 yards north of the creek itself, creating a potential for groundwater contamination.

Wallace said the inspector was not aware that some clay material had been applied several years ago to seal the area and prevent groundwater contamination. Testing of the creek showed no contamination. However, the district board tonight will consider depositing the biosolids directly into a truck or trailer to be hauled away.

Also, the EPA inspector said oil and grease samples were collected in a plastic container, instead of the required glass container. Wallace said the issue occurred once and was corrected immediately.

Other issues

The water board noted several other issues in its notice of violation.

Specifically, water board staff said progress has not been made on a project to upgrade part of the treatment plant with backup equipment to ensure it could continue to operate uninterrupted if one item was out of operation for maintenance or repairs.

Seitz said the treatment plant upgrades remain a long-term goal for the district, but that the district board chose to complete other necessary projects over the past few years.

The water board also chided the district for allowing temporary workers to perform chlorine-handling operations, and said they should be restricted to non-operations tasks.

Wallace said the temporary workers were just using chlorine to wash out some containers. Mostly, he said, the temporary employees — two at the most — take care of painting, weeding and other basic maintenance issues at the plant.

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