A stinky situation: Berkeley fined after releasing untreated sewage into the bay

Alvin Wu/Staff

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Several East Bay communities — including Berkeley — and the East Bay Municipal Utility District, or EBMUD, were fined a total of nearly $400,000 for dumping untreated sewage into the San Francisco Bay.

The sewage release is in violation of a “consent decree” that Berkeley and neighboring communities signed in 2014 when the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, found them in violation of the Clean Water Act. The agreement charged them $1.5 million for past violations and required that the cities and agencies upgrade 1,500 miles of infrastructure over a 21-year period, according to the EPA’s press release.

“Approximately seven million gallons of sewage and partially treated sewage were released into the bay during 55 discrete spill events over three years of compliance monitoring,” said EPA spokesperson Michele Huitric in an email. “Many of these spills occurred in rain events.”

Most of the violations happened in 2017, which was the “wettest season in history,” according to EBMUD representative Andrea Pook. The majority of these violations were waste overflow at overflow structures, while the main waste treatment facility made it through without issues.

“We want to do a good job, (and) we are committed to making sure that the bay is healthy, so we’re looking for ways to train our staff and look to better manage wet weather flow,” Pook said.

One of the biggest payouts came from EBMUD, which paid a total of $134,000 for violations including overflows and failure to meet certain limitations for contaminants in treated sewage. The fines cover violations from September 2014 to June 2017.

Releasing sewage into waterways can have wide-ranging effects including polluting the water, threatening wildlife by depleting oxygen in the bay and spreading disease-causing organisms, metals and nutrients that can threaten public health, according to the EPA press release.

EBMUD plans to focus on training its employees rather than improving the facilities, according to Pook. Because many of the district’s violations come from emergency situations, such as high volumes of stormwater, the agency wants to work to more regularly prepare employees for extraordinary situations.

During this same period, Berkeley only had two violations, both of which were overflows occurring in 2017, according to city spokesperson Matthai Chakko. Of all the penalized communities, Berkeley had the lowest fine, paying only $400.

“It’s a penalty, but it also shows how good of a job we’ve been doing in improving and maintaining our existing sewage systems,” Chakko said. “Even before the consent decree started, there were discussions with the EPA. This is something that the city wants to fix.”

Berkeley is an old city with old infrastructure, according to Chakko, so investing in improvements is a priority. Since the 2014 consent decree, the city has rehabilitated an average of 23,000 feet of main sewer line each year.

The sewage system is managed by multiple entities, as citizens, EBMUD and cities all have a hand in maintaining pipes in good conditions. The city of Berkeley also began a program in 2014 to work with private owners to test and improve their sewer systems.

“Each agency is working hard to fulfill their intentions and commitments to keep the bay clean with whatever is in our purview,” Pook said. “The idea is that with everyone chipping in, it will get better and better.”

Contact Madeleine Gregory at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @mgregory_dc.