OAKLAND, Calif. - Aging infrastructure, in need of replacement or major rehabilitation, can be found everywhere, but Oakland has a huge sewer line problem that, if placed end to end, would stretch from the city itself all the way to the Colorado border. One tenacious woman has experienced her share of that problem. And then some.
"When it rains, there's sewage water, waste water, bubbling up out of the ground here," said Terry Tobey of Oakland, who says that raw sewage has been spewing from broken city pipes onto her property for years.
After two years of fighting, Tobey finally got the city of Oakland to replace one of two very old seeping and dilapidated city-owned sewer pipes running across her property.
Video of the inside of Tobey's pipes show that her sewer lines are in deplorable condition; cracked with roots growing through ands separated at the joints. Though one is now replaced, the other remains untouched.
Tobey says the pipes have polluted, eroded and destabilized her property with raw sewage that ultimately runs into a creek to the bay. "And, the city has known about this from, at least, going back to 2011 because I got the city records," Tobey said.
Not only is the sewage smelly and unpleasant, it can also be dangerous because of the chemical toxin called "root foam."
"I had been seeing massive amounts of foam coming down the channel behind the barn there. Massive amounts of foam," Tobey said. She added that the toxic foam gave her, her horses and her dogs allergic reactions and chemical burns. "It's everywhere," she said.
The repairs to her sewer pipes should have been done a year ago according to Loren Little, the former supervisor of the Oakland's Sanitary Sewer Department.
"Once it's discovered by, the sewer maintenance crew has 365 days of discovery of these particular lines that have broken down, they have to be fixed. That's according to the consent decree," Little said.
That's because, four years ago, the city of Oakland, settled a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lawsuit, agreeing to rehabilitate more than 900 miles of crumbling raw sewage lines. "The work is not being done in the way it should be done," said Little.
Little, who is now the supervisor of Oakland's Storm Sewer Department, says when he was supervisor of Sanitary Sewer Department, he got the city on the EPA schedule. "Sanitary sewer systems that are actually compromised that are not being repaired in a timely fashion like they should be," said Little.
Furthermore, according to an extensive investigative report by the East Bay Express, the city of Oakland has failed to report many sewage overflows, falsified numerous documents submitted to regulators and failed to disclose dangers to the public. KTVU spoke with Sean Maher, a spokesman for the Department of Public Works, who categorically denied these allegations and said the city is "compliant with the law."
the city has not done enough, Tobey said. She wants the remaining line completely replaced, not just repaired. She also wants the city to be more proactive in alerting neighbors when sewage problems erupt.
"And all that sewage that goes through that pipe comes from 16 houses above me; 24/7," Tobey said. "They're supposed to go around and say 'Hey, we know the sewage has spilled on your property. You need to take these precautions.' I think they even have a handout. They never do that. They've never done that to me at all."
For its part, Maher said the city is spending $17-million a year to rehabilitate 13 miles of pipe per year, a rate that will take it more than 70 years to complete, far longer than the EPA will allow.
Little believes that a strong-willed, knowledgeable sewer expert should be appointed as a special monitor to make sure the department is run correctly. The city says it welcomes oversight and is considering hiring an independent monitor for Tobey's case.
"The city of Oakland sewer service fees are over $50 million a year," Little said. "So, there's no excuse for the city of Oakland not to be able to do what needs to be done to properly and effectively to run a sewer division the way they're supposed to."