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Navy Admits to Dumping 14 Million Gallons of Sewage Into San Diego Bay

Thursday, November 30, 2006
By Jack Innis

Who Knew? - The source of a massive sewage spill, apparently undetected for two years by any water quality-monitoring agencies, was recently discovered at Naval Base San Diego. The leak, originating from improperly routed sewer pipes, was stopped Nov. 17, but had already spilled an estimated 14 gallons of sewage into San Diego Bay.

San Diego Coastkeeper is recommending a $1-per-gallon fine be levied on the Navy as a deterren to other agencies.

SAN DIEGO- Move over Exxon Valdez.

San Diego Bay now holds claim to the largest environmental spill on West Coast shores in recent memory.

The 11-million-gallon crude-oil spill off the Alaskan coast when the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground in 1989 has officially been dwarfed by a 14-million-gallon sewage spill recently discovered in San Diego Bay. The spill ran completely undetected for two years before being halted Nov. 17.

The waste matter apparently came from sewer pipes improperly routed during the 2004 construction of a 1,032-bed barracks at Naval Base San Diego. Navy workers discovered the 10-inch pipe- meant to be tied to the city's closed sewer system- connected to a storm drain that dumps into Chollas Creek, which empties into south San Diego Bay.

According to a Navy release, Navy construction crews known as "Seabees" discovered the illegal discharge while working on an adjacent project Nov. 17. They immediately built a temporary diversion to the city sewer system and contacted Soltek Pacific, a private construction firm the Navy says built the 12-story Palmer Hall Barracks in 2004.

The barracks build date, factored with known per-day water consumption, is being used as the Navy's basis for calculating the size of the spill. The wastewater comprised discharge from toilets, showers and sinks. A separate meter reading shows that approximately 2 million gallons of gray water (that which has been used in sinks, showers or laundries, but not toilets) was diverted to landscape and maintenance.

The day after the spill was detected, Soltek personnel permanently connected the barracks to the city sewer system, according to the release. Efforts to sanitize the misused storm drain pipe continue as of this writing. The Navy press release also claims that tests for sewage around the outfall and adjacent bay- subsequent to the cessation of the spill- show negative results for contamination.

Boaters in the bay, however, are angry that approximately 20,000 gallons per day of untreated wastewater could reach San Diego's shores unnoticed.

Something is apparently amiss; are tests incapable of detecting that which they are designed to detect, or are testing methodologies faulty?

Who's Monitoring What?

Mike McCann, ombudsman for the state's Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB), is as puzzled as anyone. All entities, pubic and private, with even a casual connection to the state's waterways, must report to the agency. The RWQBC does not monitor the bay's water quality, but does set standards for water usage.

"It's a mystery why (the sewage spill) wasn't picked up," McCann said. "We don't monitor the water quality ourselves and I don't think (San Diego County Health Department) has an ongoing monitoring program. It's not monitored for that on a regular basis."

The Navy is subject to RWQBC regulation and must comply with state law including the Clean Water Act, but as a federal agency, it has complete immunity from any penalties imposed by the state. McCann described the Navy as cooperative, but emphasized the RWQBC investigation had not yet begun.

"We're going to be looking into this, and working with them to take steps (to see) that it doesn't happen again," McCann said.

A-8 Points Back

If the RWQBC is baffled as to how such a large spill could go unnoticed for years, many of those living in A-8 Anchorage are incensed.

The San Diego Unified Port District has long asserted that boats in the anchorage are sources of raw sewage discharge. In an April 26 public outreach meeting, spokesman Dirk Mathiasen listed illegal sewage discharges from moored boats among Port District environmental concerns and stated that holding tank violations in the 82-acre south San Diego bay anchorage "are difficult to observe."

Environmental concerns were among issues weighed when Port District commissioners passed an ordinance May 31 to permanently close the down the anchorage over an 18- to 24-month period.

"They point the fingers at A-8 residents because we're the most convenient scapegoats," said Doc Barber, longtime anchorage resident and proponent. "Every time they find something wrong with the bay, every time the environmentalists go out and check, they point the finger at A-8 anchorage because we live for free. In their minds, we must be causing the pollution, we must be sinking the boats, we must be spilling oil because we live here for free."

Barber believes that the Navy will never be sanctioned for their multi-million gallon spill. Meanwhile, he and the last few dozen remaining liveaboards are in the process of being evicted from the anchorage- in part- for relatively few, if any, confirmed discharges.

"When they find out that the Navy has spilled 14 million gallons, they say, 'oh well, that's just the Navy,' and never say another word about it," Barber said. "They're not going to point the finger at the Navy and say 'why don't we move the Navy out?' We're just more convenient scapegoats."

Coastkeeper Steps In

San Diego Coastkeeper, an environmental advocacy group deeply concerned with water quality in San Diego Bay, believes the Navy Station sewage spill might be understated. The Navy's initial estimate of 10 million gallons was revised a day later to 14 million.

"We're still in the fact-gathering state," said Coastkeeper Executive Director Bruce Reznik. "We'll see how it finally shakes out for the volume of the spill. My first reaction is that 14 million gallons sounds a little low."

Coastkeeper, formerly called Baykeeper, sees this as a fairly egregious mistake that impacts not only the bay, but Chollas Creek, into which the sewage was dumped. The environmental advocacy group would like to see the Navy fined one dollar per gallon of sewage spilled, and have the money placed into an environmental fund.

"Such a fine would act as a disincentive for spills and to create a fund to remediate damage," Reznik said. "We haven't finalized our stance at this point, but given our history - that's what we've advocated for large spills."

While Reznik agrees with McCann that it is hard to fine or penalize the federal government, he does not believe it is impossible to do so.

"There is some disagreement about whether a state agency can impose a fine- it goes to a longer discussion on waver of immunity," Reznik said. "But this was an issue at Camp Pendleton when they were having chronic sewage spills. We thought the RWQCB could take more aggressive action than they thought they could take. I don't know if it boils down to different legal interpretations or if they're just reticent to go after agencies such as the military."

Coastkeeper plans to wait to see what actions, if any, the RWQCB takes.

"If they're sort of sticking to their guns and don't think they can issue fines and they're not planning to do that, we have to look at our options," Reznik said. "You don't have to read too far to know where our options lie."

Reznik stated that in the recent past, Coastkeeper felt that the RWQCB was not doing enough to control sewer spills at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, north of Oceanside. Coastkeeper pressured the Marines to reduce spills and build a new sewage treatment facility on base, Reznik stated.

"I would expect we'd consider pursuing options in this case if the board doesn't act in a way we think is appropriate," he said.

Examining Chollas Creek

In 2002, Chollas Creek was identified by the U.S. Environ-mental Protection Agency (EPA) as an impaired water body with high concentrations of diazinon, coliform, and metals such as cadmium, copper, zinc and lead, according to a city of San Diego release. The creek winds through parts of the city of San Diego, crosses the Naval Station, and empties into the bay south of the San Diego Bay/Coronado Bridge.

Chollas Creek is the recipient of at least two grants to improve water quality, alleviate flooding and provide essential pollution prevention information to residents and businesses who will sustain the creek improvements beyond the life of the grants. Enhancing Chollas Creek will also further the community's efforts to create a natural linear park and trail system.

Despite Chollas Creek being identified as contaminated, the Port District does not routinely monitor water quality where it meets the bay on the military installation.

"We don't test in or around the Naval Base," said David Merk, the Port District's environmental services director. "The nearest site to the Naval Station in which higher than satisfactory levels have been found is across the bay at Coronado Park."

Due to the distance between the two sites and that the channel between the two sites is subject to diurnal tidal flushing, it is unlikely that high levels of bacteria at Coronado are caused by problems at the Naval Station.

"We understand that the Navy is taking this very seriously and moving very aggressively to correct any problems associated with that," Merk said.

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"San Diego Coastkeeper is recommending a $1-per-gallon fine be levied on the Navy as a deterrent to other agencies."

Is $1 per gallon what an individual or company would have to pay????????

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