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EPA calls for improved reporting of sewer spills

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Staff shortfalls and failures to warn beachgoers about sewer spills in waters off the coast are among a dozen deficiencies cited in a recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report on a coast side sewer agency following a two-year investigation.

The EPA inquiry began in 2004 after the Montara Water and Sewer District, part of the Sanitary Authority Mid-Coastside, was fined $21,000 when a pump failed, causing 160,000 gallons of sewage to spill in May 2000, much of it making its way into the ocean, officials said. The area is part of the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve and the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

The report highlights the hundreds of thousands of gallons in sewer spills by the Montara, El Granada and Half Moon Bay sewer districts since 2000, taking them to task for failing to have in place enough staff to maintain coastside sewers, for not properly warning the public of spills and sloppy record keeping when reporting spills.

"In general, it looks like the EPA has taken its work very seriously and done a top-to-bottom waste water inspection," said Scott Boyd, board chairman of Sanitary Authority Mid-Coastside and board president of Montara Water and Sewer District. "And while the report was fair, considering the scope of past spills, the long delay in completing the investigation has resulted in much of the information being out of date," Boyd said.

"I think that the recommendations are something we can live with," said Jack Foley, Sanitary Authority Mid-Coastside manager. "All of them are being worked on, and many have already been completed."

Specifically, Sanitary Authority Mid-Coastside, which is responsible for maintenance on the three sewer districts, has added a second full-time sewer maintenance person and plans to bring another onboard after the first of the year. A fourth is being considered, Foley said. In addition, the district has purchased a $120,000 maintenance truck that can inspect and clean sewers with video, doubling the number of crews, Foley said.

Storage overflow tanks that hold a combined total of more than 500,000 gallons of sewage overflow can now be put into use in Montara and El Granada during heavy rains, when most overflows occur due to rainwater seeping into pipes and being carried along to pump stations, officials said.

George Irving, Montara Water and Sewer District manager, said further improvements are being considered, including spending more on repairs rather than replacing pipes to save money and be able to treat more hot spots.

The upgrades in the past two years appear to be paying off, with the size of spills continuing a downward trend last year. "In 2005, there was a marked decrease in spill volume compared to previous years," according to the report.

ecarpenter@examiner.com