San Diego Power Outage-induced Sewage Spill Worse Than Thought

Byline: Taylor Hill

San Diego Power Outage-induced Sewage Spill Worse Than Thought

SAN DIEGO — Two sewage spills triggered by San Diego County’s massive Sept. 8 power outage were found to have released 75 percent more pollution into San Diego’s rivers and onto beaches than originally estimated.

The initial estimate provided by San Diego city officials had the spills combining to release a total of 2 million gallons of raw sewage from Pump Station #64 on Roselle Street (which flowed into the Los Penasquitos Creek and Lagoon) and Pump Station #1 (which spilled into the Sweetwater River and ultimately into San Diego Bay).

The updated estimate of the total amount of sewage spilled is now 3.5 million gallons. The original estimates were reported to have been gathered through field observations, and the revised numbers are the result of San Diego’s Public Utilities Department reviewing records of flow metering devices at the two pump stations.

A report issued by San Diego Public Works staff for the city’s Natural Resources and Culture Committee stated the sewage pump system is in compliance with the Office of Water Programs for the EPA, which states that two separate and independent sources of electrical power need to be provided to the stations.

Both pumps had redundant backup electrical systems from two separate San Diego Gas and Electric substations. However, because all electrical power in the city was cut off, both pumps were shut down, leading to the release of sewage.

The report said that some of the city’s pumps have backup generators in case of a power outage, but both pumps involved in the spill did not. As the power outage went on and the sewage spill continued, Public Works officials decided to transport two portable generators to the sites. However, city power was restored before those generators could be hooked up.

The Roselle Street spill resulted in 2.6 million gallons of sewage being released, closing beaches from Scripps Pier to Del Mar and Solana Beach. Pump Station #1 released more than 870,000 gallons of raw sewage into Sweetwater River.

The new spill estimates from the report will be sent to the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board, the California Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The groups will be in charge of deciding what impact the sewage spill had on the environment, and what type of mitigation will need to be done in the affected areas.

Pollution fines can also be assessed by the Water Quality Control Board, and the amount of sewage released can have an impact on the amount the city must pay. However, because of the circumstances surrounding the power outage-caused spill, it is not clear whether fines will be assessed.

Members of San Diego Coastkeeper, a nonprofit organization with a mission of protecting San Diego’s beaches, bays and water quality, reported sewage effects at Los Penasquitos Lagoon, “showing high levels of fecal indicator bacteria, ammonia and phosphorous. Volunteers noted gray-colored water, a strong sewage odor and a fish kill in the lagoon,” a release stated.

By Sept. 26, Coastkeeper’s water quality monitoring results showed that the sewage spill had entered the Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, as well.

“City and state agencies are wagering human and environmental health against the odds of another emergency,” said San Diego Coastkeeper executive director Gale Filter. “They are gambling that some sewage pump stations aren’t worth the investment of a proper emergency backup.”

At the San Diego Natural Resources Committee meeting Sept. 28, Public Works staff pledged to study options for backup power generation on site, although a time frame was not given.

“Now is the time for the city to rectify its mistakes handling this sewage crisis and take the proper steps to ensure it won’t happen again,” said Gabriel Solmer, Coastkeeper’s advocacy director. “Our human and environmental health and economy depend on the city taking discrete and proactive action.”

The 3.5 million gallon spill was coupled with an equally devastating 3.8 million gallon spill in Mexico, into the Tijuana River. The power outage, which extended from south Orange County to Baja California, was reported to be the cause of the Mexico sewage pump’s failure, as well.

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