EPA fines Oakland more than $225,000 for sewage spills, broken pipes

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The city of Oakland has been ordered to pay $226,500 in penalties for violations related to sewage spewing and spilling into waterways and the bay, according to a letter sent to the city by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

2 Investigates obtained a copy of that letter on Tuesday and was the first to report the punishment. 

The letter, dated April 18, states that between September 22, 2014, and June 30, 2017, the city had 34 sewage overflows that reached waterways; seven of those spills were greater than 10,000 gallons. For just those overflow violations, the city is on the hook for $192,400 in penalties.

The Department of Public Works argued that they are ahead of schedule in making repairs to their aging pipes. A spokesperson said in part:  "Oakland Public Works is meeting or exceeding our many commitments for this work, and we are continuing to make major investments in inspection, maintenance and capital projects to make the long-term improvements Oakland needs. We knew heading into the consent decree that we could not eliminate these issues overnight, and we knew some stipulated penalties would be unavoidable. We are continuing to make improvements to our system and our own best practices, and we hope to reduce those penalties over time."

Public Works Operations Manager Tyree Jackson responded that it's impossible to prevent every type of sewage spill, especially when it rains. But Kalb asked the department to come up with a better mitigation plan and report back to his committee on June 26. "Even a $24,000 fine would be an improvement," he said. Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan chastised the sewage division at the same meeting, asking rhetorically how their officers could give the "overall tone that everything was fine," despite receiving a significant financial penalty.

After being sued by the EPA, the city of Oakland signed a "consent decree" in 2014, agreeing to repair 900 miles of pipes costing $300 million over 22 years. The EPA sued many Bay Area cities over similar sewage system and broken pipe issues. They, too, were fined. The East Bay Municipal Utility District was fined $134,000,  the city of Alameda was fined $12,000 and the city of Berkeley was fined $400. 

As part of the EPA's finding, the federal government also found Oakland to be in violation of failing to notify affected owners of defective sewer lines. In total, Oakland failed to send at least 41 notices within 90 days and never sent 12 notices entirely. According to the letter, the EPA and the California Regional Water Board does not have information to determine how much to fine the city for those violations.

Oakland is supposed to fix any defective or crumbling pipes within one year, according to the consent decree. However, the EPA's letter states the city failed to repair at least seven problematic pipes within that time. The city is now being fined $34,100 for those violations.

Terry Tobey fought for years to get one of the badly broken pipes on her Oakland property replaced near her horse farm. KTVU reported that cracks and root intrusion were seen in video of those pipes and captured by a city contractor. Also, the pipes were cleaned using a highly toxic foam that Tobey captured in cell phone video flowing onto her property, causing allergic reactions to her and chemical burns to her horses. The former supervisor of the Oakland Sanitary Sewer Department said repairs should have been done in less than a year after it was discovered, but that never happened.

Now, according to the letter, the EPA is demanding the city provide required information including repair dates for pipes that were not timely addressed. Also, any sewer lines determined to be defective need to list when the affected owner was made aware by the city in writing.

In the end, the city must pay half of the money or $113,250 to the Regional Water Board and the other $113,250 to the EPA within four months. 

This is the first fine demanded since the consent decree in 2014, despite several violations. The last time Oakland was fined was in 2011 for falsifying start times of sewage spills and underreporting how much spilled.

KTVU's Lisa Fernandez contributed to this report.