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Huntington Didn't Report Massive Sewer Leaks

Millions of gallons oozed underground from pipe cracks in the '90s. City knew and let problem fester. State says it should have been told.

December 10, 2000|MEG JAMES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Badly cracked pipes in Huntington Beach leaked millions of gallons of raw sewage underground during the 1990s, city documents show, yet went unreported to water and health agencies.

Unhappy state water officials plan to issue an executive order this week, demanding that the city find out where that sewage went and clean up any remaining contamination.

"This is a problem they should have told us about earlier," said Gerard J. Thibeault, executive director of the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board, a state agency that regulates discharges in an area that includes north and central Orange County. "We worry about what has gone on with this spill area, and we want to make sure that there's no public health threat."

The water board only recently found out that for years, hundreds of cracks in Huntington Beach sewer lines were releasing an estimated 71,324 gallons a day of raw sewage--a number that comes from a June 1996 memo by the city's Public Works Department.

A series of city memos in 1996 depict worried and overworked crews unable to keep up with a deteriorating system of sewer pipes.

"I have received over 620 documented sewer line problems located on Alabama Street in downtown Huntington Beach," reads a typical memo, dated June 17, 1996, from a sewer maintenance crew leader. "I believe that some of these problems are leaking into the ground and posing a threat to the city's water supply and the public's health. I have neither the manpower nor the financial means to make the necessary repairs."

Documents obtained by The Times show 28 memos reporting similar sewer-line breaks, worded alike in expressing city workers' concerns about the lack of money or staff to fix the problems.

There is no evidence that the leaks contributed to the summer 1999 contamination that closed about four miles of the city's beaches for two months.

"These were significant leaks; a large volume of sewage had been released," said Bruce Paine, an investigator for the water quality board. "And we don't know what happened to it."

Investigators also complain that as they spent months searching for the source of the beach pollution, city officials failed to disclose the extent of its sewers' deterioration and leakage.

State law requires that health officials be notified immediately if "any sewage or other waste" is discharged into any state waters or deposited in an area that leads to water contamination. During the 1998-99 fiscal year, Costa Mesa reported 20 sewage spills to the Orange County Sanitation District; Garden Grove reported 45. Huntington Beach reported two such spills.

Huntington Beach's spokesman said Friday that he wasn't sure whether the city was required to report the leaks since the sewage remained underground. He said the city did not become fully aware of the problem until 1996, the year that crews used closed-circuit television cameras to survey the lines.

"Obviously, if we have a sewer line break or a spill, we would report that," he said.

But state water quality officials said the city's sewage leaks should have been reported.

"In the case of Huntington Beach, we weren't in a gray area," Paine said. "The water code requires that all releases be reported. It's no different for subsurface leaks."

Paine said cities with older sewer lines have leaks, but the volume of waste that flowed from Huntington Beach's pipes was extreme.

In 1998, the city documented 6,369 cracks and 194 holes in its sewer pipes in a city waste-water inspection report. Last year, the city started a massive repair program to reinforce its pipes, including some that were installed before 1920.

But state water quality officials said they did not realize the extent of the leaks in Huntington Beach until Paine started poking around a few months ago, after receiving a tip.

Huntington Beach began working on the problem, city officials said, after learning of the water board's concerns several months ago. City Council members are scheduled to hire an engineering firm this month.

The city plans to drill eight 50-foot wells in the downtown area "to assure ourselves and the water district that there's no problem," said Richard Barnard, Huntington Beach spokesman. "In that part of town, the ground water doesn't move. And if it moved, it only moved a few feet."

Barnard stressed that no evidence has been found to link the leaked sewage to the bacteria that closed the southern stretch of Huntington Beach throughout much of the summer of 1999.

While UC Irvine scientists contracted by various agencies to study the beach closure have not pinpointed the cause of the contamination, they do not believe sewage from the city's lines is responsible. Instead, scientists are concentrating on a theory that partially treated sewage discharged four miles offshore by the Orange County Sanitation District might be carried by currents back to the shore, drawn by warm water released from a beach-side power plant.

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