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Notorious Pump Station Spilling Sewage Again

March 06, 1987|RALPH FRAMMOLINO | Times Staff Writer

In what could become one of the state's largest sewage spills, a pipe leading from a notorious Sorrento Valley sewage pump station ruptured Thursday, sending millions of gallons of raw sewage into Los Penasquitos Lagoon and the ocean.

San Diego City water officials, calling the incident tantamount to a "disaster," said that 20 million to 30 million gallons of sewage will backwash into the lagoon and ocean before the pipe is repaired today and the pump station back on line.

That spill would be among the largest ever in California, dumping into the ocean the sewage equivalent to what is produced daily by a city of 200,000 people, said Terry Wilson, an EPA spokesman in San Francisco. Wilson said that several months ago another large spill dumped eight to 10 million gallons of sewage into the East Bay near San Francisco.

Mayor Maureen O'Connor responded to the Sorrento Valley spill by calling on residents living north of Miramar Road to refrain from "unnecessary flushes from the toilet . . . postpone dish washing and clothes washing" and to "cut down the time people spend in the shower."

In addition, the spill triggered a city ordinance imposing an immediate moratorium on the issuance of building permits for the fast-growing communities served by the facility, known as Pump Station 64. That moratorium covers Sorrento Valley, Penasquitos, North City West, Mira Mesa and Scripps Ranch, among others in San Diego's northern tier.

"I think we've reached catastrophic proportions today," said Councilwoman Abbe Wolfsheimer, whose 1st District includes the Pump Station 64 area. "Now, we do not know how to control the spill."

Wolfsheimer said, however, there was a chance that heavy rains forecasted for the San Diego area today could help alleviate the spill by diluting the sewage, flushing it through the lagoon and washing it away from the beaches.

County health officials will be checking this morning to see how much of the beach, if any, should be quarantined. Signs warning against swimming have been posted near the mouth of the lagoon.

The spill couldn't have come at a worse time for the city, which is spending $20 million to immediately upgrade the pump station. A succession of capacity problems, mechanical errors and human miscues have caused the pump station to overflow into the lagoon 59 times in the last eight years.

The last sewage spill from Pump Station 64 came when 1.5 million gallons overflowed into the lagoon on Thanksgiving Day--an incident that prompted the regional Water Quality Control Board to impose a fine of $1.5 million against the city. The majority of the fine was suspended, but the city was still forced to pay a record $300,000 for the holiday accident, which was blamed on operator error.

Thursday's mishap "took everyone by surprise," said Yvonne Rehg, spokeswoman for the city's Water Utilities Department. "It's definitely a shocker. It's definitely a disappointment."

Rehg said the pipe that broke was the 36-inch "force main" that leads away from the station, over a 300-foot incline and to the city's waste water treatment plant in Point Loma. The pipe is concrete-reinforced steel, she said.

The main cracked, however, when the pump station suffered three weather-related power interruptions between 9:30 and 10 a.m. During the momentary interruptions--the longest was 10 seconds--sewage reversed its flow and headed downhill toward the pumps, said Rehg.

As the sewage backed up, "check" valves on the pumps closed to prevent the pump station from flooding. With nowhere to go, the sewage built up enough pressure to rupture the underground pipe about a quarter-mile from the station, said Rehg.

The rupture sent sewage gushing through a field and into Roselle Street, where the pump station is tucked in a row of businesses.

Jennifer Ikel, manager of the Premier Services Recovery, said one of her employees saw the sewage erupt from the pipe, which is buried in a field at the end of Roselle Street. The break sent effluent streaming into a lot where the firm keeps 250 repossessed cars, she said.

"It was like a geyser that had gone 10 feet into the air," said Ikel. "It was unbelievable. We had cars and the water was up to the doors."

City water officials shut down the pump station at 10 a.m., leaving the 19.5 million gallons of sewage that flow through the system daily nowhere else to go but into the lagoon and eventually the ocean.

Rehg said the rupture was six inches wide and 24 inches long. Although administrators first feared it could take two to three days to repair it, Regh said Thursday evening that water department crews will be able to patch the pipe by sometime after noon today.

"We could lose between 20 and 30 million (gallons of sewage) because you're talking between 24 to 36 hours," Rehg said about the overflow.

City Manager John Lockwood said Thursday he doesn't believe state water pollution officials, who have the power to impose a $10 fine for every gallon of sewage spilled, will hold the city liable for the accident.

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