OAKLAND, Calif. - Miracles of Faith Rev. Greggory L. Brown can’t forget one Thanksgiving weekend when it seemed as though biblical-sized floods had deluged his church. He had just finished serving a meal to his parishioners when he got an urgent phone call. Sewage was spewing into the bathroom and up to the countertops at his church, nestled in a residential Oakland neighborhood near the Laurel District. The air smelled like rotten eggs. Brown goo covered the floor. None of the children at the church-run Head Start program were allowed to come to school until crews dressed in hazmat uniforms hauled out the unsanitary mess.
“Jesus wept,” Brown said remembering that winter nearly two years ago when 1,200 gallons of sewage spewed outside and inside his church, conjuring a verse from John 11:35. “Yeah, I wept too at what happened.”
Interactive map: Significant sewage spills
Each year, hundreds of thousands of gallons of sewage overflows from aging city pipes in Oakland, much of which ends up contaminating creeks, lakes and waterways that flow straight into the bay. The sewage also destroys property and in some cases, has created decades-long headaches for residents, including the pastor.
Brown estimates he and his neighbors have spent $50,000 over 15 years to install a reverse drain outside the sidewalk of his church. And he’s spent thousands of dollars more to replace ruined furniture. Most times, Brown has to figure out how to put a Band-Aid on the problem himself.
“There are times I go outside of the church and take Lysol and spray it around the sewer,” Brown said. “The neighbors used to laugh at me. I just go outside with two or three cans of Lysol and I would just spray and spray thinking how unfortunate it is that little children have to walk past this.”
Oakland’s sewage problem getting worse
Oakland’s sewage knows no socioeconomic or geographic bounds. A map of some of the most significant spills shows that the toxic messes have overflowed in the affluent Glenview neighborhood down to a beloved creek, in front of a multimillion dollar home in Rockridge, behind a run-down home in a working-class neighborhood in Fruitvale and in the basement of a downtown Salvation Army. That’s not to mention the toxic wastewater flows into the popular Lake Temescal where people swim each summer and Lake Merritt, a favorite for boating all year long.
And the problem just seems to be getting worse.
In its last annual report, Oakland’s Department of Public Works noted that in 2016-2017, nearly 250,000 gallons of sewage overflowed, a 729 percent increase, from the prior fiscal year. These spills have financial and environmental consequences. For the first time, the Environmental Protection Agency fined Oakland $226,500 for violating a consent decree and letting untreated sewage flow – containing E. coli and other toxins -- into San Francisco Bay over a roughly three-year period.
The “consent decree” that Oakland is bound to is a legal agreement the city signed after being sued by the EPA and the nonprofit Baykeeper for violating the Clean Water Act. The 2014 agreement Oakland requires Oakland to repair its 900-mile pipe system over 22 years at a cost of $300 million.
"We have to take responsibility for it and make sure we learn from those problems and do better over the next three-year period, which starts now,” city councilman Dan Kalb said.
City says it’s ahead of schedule
No one, including Department of Public Works Director Jason Mitchell, would go on camera or speak in person to 2 Investigates about the seeming delayed city response times to address sewage spills and the apparent short-term repairs made instead of real fixes.
In an emailed statement, department spokesman Sean Maher said, in part: “The work to rehabilitate and maintain this system is tremendous, and our consent decree outlines a clear plan that invests in that work over more than two decades. Since entering the consent decree in 2014, Oakland Public Works has rehabilitated more than 60 miles of pipe, well ahead of schedule. Sewer spills have reduced by 16 percent and with sustained investment and work, our goal is to continue making reductions to the frequency and volume of spills in Oakland.”
To city leaders, the Department of Public Works managers also insisted the agency is ahead of schedule in terms of pipe repair, cleaning the system, renovating the the sewer pump stations and inspecting the pipes, among other things, and it’s doing the best it can to keep up with unfortunate overflows. They presented their positive-sounding report to a city committee on April 24, coincidentally, on the day the city was fined by the EPA. None of the managers mentioned the fine, which councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan noted, saying she really didn’t appreciate their glowing “tone that everything was fine.” %INLINE%
Oakland Department of Works managers also noted that the increase in sewage overflows during the last fiscal year was due to natural causes - namely rain - which is out of the agency’s control.
But bad weather is exactly when residents need their pipes to hold. And there are indeed some things the city can control, including the timely reporting of these spills. During its most recent audit, the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board found that Oakland is still in violation of producing timely sewage spill reports, which are mandated by a consent decree.
Specifically, the water quality board noted in 2016 and 2017, Oakland was in violation of reporting 16 sewage spills that included moderate to major overflows at the Salvation Army (7,000 gallons) on Harmon Street (30,000 gallons) on 69th Avenue (94,000 gallons ) and at Lake Temescal (where 43,000 gallons of sewage overflowed in 2017).
That same board fined Oakland $114,000 in 2011, after it found that the city falsified the start times of sewage overflows and underreported the volume of sewage released.
All this, despite the fact that sewage rates have increased every year for the last five years and the department has an annual budget of roughly $60 million. Homeowners pay between $75 to $160 a month in sewage fees.
Slow to respond, finger pointing
Many residents say they’re upset not only that pipes burst, but that the city is slow to respond to their cries for help. And even when they do show up, there is a lot of inter-agency bureaucracy and finger pointing. In February of last year, for example, it took 10 days for officials to stop a sewage flow spilling into Lake Temescal, a series of emails obtained by 2 Investigates shows.
Brown, the pastor, said he’s dealt with sewage overflows at his church fo 15 years, and has made between 75 to 100 phone calls to city agencies and councilmembers seeking assistance during that time period.
Just this winter, Lisa Giampaoli, who lives near 19th Avenue and 28th Street by Highland Hospital, found “brown, sludgy” water coming out of the ground. “It was gross and it smelled, and I had to walk my dog either into the street or all the way up the block to get around it,” she said. “It was disgusting.”
Giampaoli, who is an attorney, contacted the city as well as EBMUD several times trying to figure out which agency was responsible for the spill. In the meantime, the brown water wasn’t stopped for weeks - 2 Investigates visited the site several times to confirm this.
She also received a lot of runaround, with each entity saying the blame fell on the other. To this day, it’s unclear if what spilled in her neighborhood is sewage or not. The city said no; EBMUD said yes.
All the problems shouldn’t be happening with all the money that the Department of Works is collecting, she argued.
"If you're going to charge me $75 or more a month in sewage fees just to have my water turned on, you should at least be able to keep sewage from coming down a street by my house and keeping things Lake Temescal free of sewage,” she said. “Like, where's all that money going?"
Until there is a permanent fix, Brown, the pastor, knows that every time it rains, his job is to run to the curb to check the pipes. He wishes the city would pony up and pay for a real fix.
“Give us what we deserve in our neighborhood,” he said. “Give us the quality of life and the living where the standards are what we need and what we want."
From the flooding and the foul odors, however, have come other blessings, though.
Brown said that his neighborhood has come together over the years, with people helping out during the storms and pitching in to clean up the mess. He stopped to quote from John 11:35 again.
“And I’ve I wept at the goodness of God,” Brown said, “in the way He brought people together in his name."