More problems found at Oceano sewage treatment plant

John Wallace
John Wallace jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

A day after longtime South San Luis Obispo County Sanitation District Administrator John Wallace stepped down, the regional water board released a report finding additional problems at the sewage treatment plant in Oceano.

Wallace, who is leaving after more than 27 years on contract with the district, has overseen a wastewater treatment plant plagued in recent years by lawsuits, a $1.1 million fine for a large sewage spill and allegations of a conflict of interest.

His announcement came after the second closed-session meeting the district board has held in the past two weeks about his performance.

The board’s new balance of power, more critical than its predecessor, hadn’t asked for Wallace’s resignation. He could not be reached for comment Thursday on the timing of his retirement.

While Wallace will no longer serve as administrator for a South County sewage treatment plant, his firm will continue — at least for now — to provide engineering services.

The board didn’t take action in closed-session Wednesday after a discussion of whether to retain Wallace Group for engineering services, which it provides under a separate contract. Before it makes any decisions, the board will likely get a status report on any projects Wallace Group is handling.

Next week, the board will hold closed-session meeting to discuss the scope of work for its interim administrator, Paul J. Karp, who was hired shortly after Wallace stepped down.

New problems found

Karp may have to soon contend with issues outlined in an inspection report, which was conducted Dec. 19 by a contractor of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and transmitted to the district via email on Thursday.

The district’s attorney, Michael Seitz, could not be immediately reached for comment on the report.

Katie DiSimone of the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board said the agency will review the report and decide whether or not to issue a notice of violation for any of the problems.

According to the report, two of the district’s four influent pumps were not functioning, nor were some valves that allow workers to close off pipes for repairs. The inspector also observed spilled chemicals and noted the plant was running with fewer staff members than its operating manual requires.

The water board issued a notice on Dec. 19 for problems found during review of the plant last March, and the most recent report indicated that steps were taken to address two major problems.

More leadership shifts

Karp, who proposed a monthly fee of $3,500 for part-time services, will help the district board find replacements for Wallace and plant Superintendent Bob Barlogio, who said he plans to leave the district in March.

His scope of work could include a review of the district’s rate structure, its preventive maintenance needs, its major projects and its revenues and expenditures. He plans to work through mid-June.

Karp served as a public works director for Arroyo Grande and Santa Maria in the 1980s and '90s. From 1981 to 1985, he also worked as administrator for the sanitation district, and brought Wallace in on an interim basis when he left to work full time for Arroyo Grande

Wallace’s retirement comes shortly after the make-up of the three-member board changed, with Grover Beach Mayor Debbie Peterson replacing Grover Councilman Bill Nicolls on the board.

Arroyo Grande Mayor Tony Ferrara and Oceano Community Services District Director Matt Guerrero also sit on the board.

Peterson and Guerrero have been more critical and questioning of district finances and operations, with Peterson recently asking for an in-depth review of the plant, including its accounts and facilities.