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Spat Follows Pipe Break

Dana Point and a water district blame each other for the 8,000-gallon leak that keeps half a mile of shoreline closed.


The city of Dana Point and the local water treatment agency blamed each other Monday for an 8,000-gallon sewage spill that forced closure of half a mile of county beach, the 24th such action in Orange County this year.

The sewage, which closed a stretch of Dana Point shoreline early Sunday, came from an old, weakened pipeline that city officials said Monday may have been leaking undetected into the ground for some time.

Officials with the South Coast Water District disagreed, saying that although the clay pipe, dating to 1933, did have hairline cracks, there was no evidence of seepage. They say the city's contractor caused the leak while working in the area.

The spill, which will keep the half-mile of county beach in Dana Point closed until at least Wednesday afternoon, came after a water main and sewer line ruptured, creating a large sinkhole at Calle Loma and Calle Fortuna. Contractors had been installing a 72-inch-diameter storm drain pipe below the parallel water and sewage lines. Water district officials said they first believed that improper dirt compacting caused the ground to shift, breaking the lines.

However, Bob Warren, Dana Point's director of public works, said the problem was compounded because the sewer line was seeping when workers first began excavating dirt Friday in preparation for installing the new storm drain pipe.

"When our contractor opened up the trench, the sewer line was already leaking," Warren said. "It could have been leaking for years, for all we know."

But Mike Dunbar, general manager of the water district, said that although the 10-inch-diameter line that serves about 100 homes did have hairline cracks, it was not seeping when district workers inspected it Friday.

"Our guys went out there and said there was no leak of sewage," he said.

Attempts to reach officials at S.J. Burkhardt General Engineering Contractors of Riverside, who were installing the storm drain pipe, were unsuccessful Monday.

Wayne Baglin, chairman of the California Regional Water Quality Control Board in San Diego, which oversees waterways in south Orange County, said Sunday's accident indicates a greater problem with county sewage systems. More beach closures have been caused by sewage spills this year than in all of 1999.

"It's not only serious from a beach pollution situation, but up in the Palisades area in Capistrano Beach, where this happened, we have serious soil erosion problems," Baglin said. "When you have a chronic leak, regardless of how small it is, that leads to landslides."

Dana Point had been adding storm drains because the neighborhood, near Capistrano Beach County Park in the oldest section of town, is prone to flooding.

City officials had wanted the street open for the weekend, so the contractor's crew backfilled the trench Friday, covering it with a steel plate.

Warren, the city public works director, said the contractor used a concrete slurry to patch the leaks Friday. But Dunbar, the water agency manager, said the concrete casing was merely a support.

On Sunday, the water and sewer lines ruptured. Temporary repairs with plastic were completed Sunday, and more permanent repairs are underway, Dunbar said.

County health officials are testing ocean water daily to determine when bacteria levels have dropped sufficiently to reopen the shoreline to swimmers.

Baglin blames such accidents on what he calls a lack of investment in repairing aging infrastructure, poor monitoring and a laissez-faire attitude among waste management officials.

"They have just taken it for granted for years," Baglin said. "I don't know when these agencies are going to accept the fact they do not have the right to spill sewage into the public's waters. If they don't spend money on improving these systems, they're going to find enforcement actions that are very costly."

Baglin, who also serves as chairman of the Aliso Water Management Agency, questioned the use of concrete slurry as a patch, saying a leaking pipeline ought to be replaced immediately. He added that moisture from the seeping waste, combined with the moisture from the slurry, would not guarantee that the leak would be properly sealed.

Dunbar said his agency generally checks lines with video cameras every three years. Baglin said such monitoring should be done annually.

"If they had a prior leak there, that is a very suspicious situation, which has to be investigated," Baglin said. "I'm especially concerned when I hear that there may be conflicting stories on the history of the problem. I'm hoping the regional board staff will be investigating these things with notices of violation, which will ask for a comprehensive investigation of what happened and how it happened."

Baglin added that if there are indications that people have not been doing their jobs properly, "I think we're headed down the road to see a lot of fines."


Times correspondent Ana Beatriz Cholo contributed to this report.


Sewage Spills Stack Up

Sewage leaks have closed Orange County beaches 25 times so far this year -- already outpacing all of last year's spills. The latest spill, an 8,000-gallon leak in Dana Point,closed a half-mile stretch of county beach starting Sunday. How the leak occured:

1) Contractors add storm drain, patch leaky sewer line

1) Workers fill hole with dirt, cover with steel plate

2) Sewer line breaks, leaks into flood control channel???, flows to ocean

Graphics reporting by BRADY MacDONALD / Los Angeles Times

Source: Orange County Health Care Agency

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