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Park Service Facing Fines for Sewage Spills

Environment: Central Valley water board criticizes federal agency for series of leaks in Yosemite and the Merced River.

September 16, 2000|JAMES RAINEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Inadequate planning and inattention by the National Park Service contributed to the chronic sewage spills that have repeatedly fouled Yosemite National Park and the Merced River, resources the agency is supposed to protect, regional water officials said Friday in demanding corrective action.

The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board threatened to fine the Park Service up to $10,000 a day if the federal agency does not end the string of spills, 17 of which have plagued Yosemite Valley and the western gateway to the park in the last 2 1/2 years.

The park's sewer system has had problems since 1997, when a massive flood dislocated sewer lines and filled them with debris.

National Park Service officials said they now believe they have most of the needed repairs to the sewer system in place. They promised the water board to increase their vigilance to prevent problems.

The last and most severe leak occurred July 27, when the Park Service's attempt to test a newly repaired sewer line went awry, spilling 200,000 gallons of raw sewage over California 140 and into the Merced River.

Park Service officials should have been prepared for a spill at the location near a treatment plant in the town of El Portal because of a previous sewage spill there, said a report by the Central Valley water board.

But the Park Service failed to post anyone at the location, and sewage continued to spill into the river overnight before it was finally discovered and shut off, the agency's report says.

"It appears that the occurrence and magnitude of the spill was caused largely by failure of [Park Service] staff to adequately man all locations where spills were possible," the report says.

State water officials said they probably would have already issued fines if a private company or local government had caused the latest spill. But rules for enforcement against the federal government are more cumbersome.

About 14 miles of the Merced River were tainted for at least a week after the July spill. With bacteria levels elevated, officials posted signs warning of a potential health threat.

The regional office of the federal Bureau of Land Management wrote a letter calling the Park Service response to the spill "slow and inept." It said the park agency had given locals in the area the impression that it "didn't care what happened outside the boundary of Yosemite National Park."

Joyce Eden of the Friends of Yosemite Valley said the Park Service had been too preoccupied with planning for future use of Yosemite and had been derelict in its duty to manage day-to-day facilities like sewers. The United Anglers of California called for more extensive testing of the Merced River to assess any pathogens that might have been left in the water.

Park Service officials said they have been striving to fix a dual set of problems since floods in January 1997 damaged many of Yosemite Valley's roads, campgrounds, sewers and other facilities.

Seven of the spills have occurred around Curry Village, Yosemite Lodge and campgrounds in Yosemite Valley. Those spills, ranging from 200 gallons to 7,000 gallons, were contained and cleaned up before they reached the river.

The Park Service blamed the messes on trash and grease clogging sewer lines and said more routine cleaning of pipes and grease traps should prevent future leaks.

A second set of spills, like the one in July, has been linked to the reconstruction of the main sewer line out of the park, along California 140.

Several large rocks were found blocking the line after that most damaging spill, said Ed Walls, the Park Service's chief of facility management in Yosemite.

He said the agency will spend almost $500,000 to hire a firm to perform a video inspection of sewer lines.

"We agree the frequency of these spills has been too high," Walls said. "We are totally committed to fixing this situation."

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