Sick of Sewage

Mar 1, 2008
Sejal Choksi
by Sejal Choksi

On January 31, heavy rains and operator error caused an overflow of sewage at a treatment plant in Marin County. More than 2.7 million gallons of partially treated sewage spilled out of the plant and into Corte Madera Creek, which flows into Richardson Bay. This was the second spill to occur in one week; only six days earlier, the same sewage treatment plant discharged another 2.5 million gallons of sewage when it was overwhelmed by heavy rains. Sewage spills carry not only bacteria and disease, but industrial chemicals as well. More than eleven days went by before the public was warned to stay out of the water.  

Richardson Bay – also impacted by  the Cosco Busan oil spill in November – supports a steelhead salmon population and is home to one of the largest eelgrass beds in San Francisco Bay, as well as populations of native oysters, herring and the endangered California clapper rail salt marsh harvest mouse. In fact, because of its unique ecological importance, Richardson Bay is a federally designated no discharge zone, meaning that even small boats are not allowed to dump any amount of sewage there. Yet this ecologically sensitive area was inundated with bacteria, harmful pathogens, and industrial chemicals. Pollution released by sewage spills can devastate the marine environment, depleting oxygen and contaminating food sources.

Additionally, toxic components in sewage can harm humans and pets by causing gastrointestinal illness, skin rashes and infections. But though Richardson Bay and its beaches are a popular recreation site and a favorite spot for dog walking, only after a long delay was the public warned to avoid coming into contact with the water.

Unfortunately, San Francisco Bay is routinely contaminated by spills and overflows of raw and partially treated sewage and industrial wastewater from cities around the Bay. In a decade-long effort to reduce this pollution, San Francisco Baykeeper has successfully leveraged sewage infrastructure upgrades in the cities of Vallejo and Richmond, two of the worst sewage polluters to the Bay. Baykeeper also reached a successful settlement with the East Bay Municipal Utility District in 2005 over the District’s failure to treat sewage to the level required by federal law.

In February, Baykeeper kicked off a Sick of Sewage campaign with three key actions: launching an independent investigation into the complete record of recent spills by the Southern Marin sewage agency; researching recent spill data for other Bay Area cities with a history of sewage spills; and filing a lawsuit in federal court against the City of Burlingame for sewage violations.

Burlingame has one of the highest sewage spill rates in the Bay Area and has discharged over 10 million gallons of wastewater through an unpermitted pipeline since 2002. The city’s 80-year-old underground collection system is in dire need of repair. Baykeeper brought suit to compel Burlingame to invest more aggressively in fixing its sewer collection system and to cease illegal discharges to the Bay near Coyote Point, a popular recreational area.

Baykeeper is also working to educate Bay Area citizens about what each of us can do to help prevent sewage overflows into the Bay. Most of us don’t realize that how we treat our sewer systems has a direct impact on the health of the Bay, particularly during times of heavy rainfall. The majority of Bay Area cities – like many cities around the country – are built above crumbling pipe systems created in the early part of the 20th century and severely neglected ever since. Large amounts of rainwater can seep into the sewer system through these crumbling pipes, swelling the volume of waste flowing into sewage treatment plants. Bay Area residents add to the burden by excessively or improperly using the sewer system. Treatment plants can then become overwhelmed and discharge the contaminated mixture into the Bay without removing bacteria and other pollutants. When that happens, you might not see toilet paper in the Bay, but that doesn’t mean it’s clean – or safe – water.

Here’s how you can help prevent sewage spills:

  • Minimize your household water use during heavy storms.
  • Inspect your sewer cleanout.
  • Have your lateral line inspected and replaced if necessary. A lateral line is what connects the pipes in a home to the main city lines.
  • Avoid planting trees and shrubs near the lateral line.
  • Eliminate connections between your storm sewer and sanitary sewer pipes.
  • Wipe fats, oils and grease from dishes before rinsing in the sink.
  • Don’t pour household chemicals and automotive fluids down drains.
  • Consider a gray water system to capture and reuse nearly clean water for your garden.
  • Consider a composting toilet.
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