Stuffed towel in toilet may be cause of raw sewage flood at SF Hall of Justice

A rather stinky situation at the San Francisco District Attorney's Office has prosecutors on edge.

On Tuesday, raw sewage spilled into DA offices at the aging Hall of Justice at 850 Bryant Street, which is home to courtrooms, police bureaus and jail cells.

The sound of slosh and sighs of disgust permeated the DA's offices for a second day in row.

One attorney wore white medical foot booties to wade through the muck.

Prosecutors say this is at least the fifth time raw sewage has flooded the building in just the past 14 months.

"A very strong pungent smell started coming from down the hall," recalled Alex Bastian, a spokesperson for the SF DA's office, who noticed the stench around 3:30 p.m.

Officials say an inmate at the jail on the seventh floor stuffed a towel in a toilet around 12:30 p.m., causing the backup on the third floor.

"Some of the prosecutors in order to save some of the files that they had to wade through the sewage water," said Bastian. In some places, the sewage was a foot deep. Attorneys worked feverishly late afternoon, stacking files up off the ground but many documents were so waterlogged and damaged that prosecutors were unable to bring them into court today.

The spill knocked the DA's computer network offline when the water flowed into a server room. 30 people were forced to evacuate the building including SFPD's entire Domestic Violence Bureau, where sewage seeped down from the DA's office. The Bureau is situated next door to Traffic Court, where dozens of people, including officers, line the hallways daily waiting for appearances.

"That's actually a urine stain and from time to time it drips urine, said Bastian pointing to a yellowish patch on the ceiling in his office hallway. He says the Hall of Justice is seismically unsafe and has been plagued over the years by rodent infestations, asbestos, and cockroaches.

"Our conditions are deplorable and we don't control the building," Bastian stated.

The landlords are San Francisco's Real Estate Division or RED. Spokesperson John Gavin released a lengthy statement:

"Over the past decade, the city has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars installing [new technology] to mitigate this type of flooding. However due to the infrequent usage of this toilet, a sewage grinder had not been installed."

Regarding infestations, Gavin wrote,

"It would be helpful if the communications staff at the DA's office worked with RED to communicate to their colleagues the importance of not leaving food out in the open for prolonged periods of time and making sure dry food products are stored properly."

"Most recently DPH staff came out for an inspection of the 3rd floor and it was observed that designated (and undesignated) break areas, and work areas had unsecured food. Areas were not clean and showed signs of regular use. It was recommended that designated break areas be thoroughly cleaned and that all food, coffee, and tea be secured in tamper proof containers. Further, recommendations were made that non designated break areas currently being used are taken out of service and that all food in office spaces be secured, and that open candy dishes be removed."

"Additionally it has been recommended that all non-facility controlled water coolers be removed and immediately disposed of or recycled. All water lines currently plumbed into US Pure units used to fill the old bottles of this system should be removed."

"For staff District Attorney staff using this third system not controlled by the City, it may be suggested via email and interoffice memo that they walk to existing Facilities controlled drinking water systems to avoid any potential health and hygiene issues that may result from using the uncontrolled water supply in their work areas."

“Several times over the past year the pest control company answered calls specific to the DA's floor (3rd floor). One incident turned out to be drugstore beetles within instant oatmeal brought in by staff and stored inside their desks. We had another incident last year in Room 301 with a similar issue involving stored dry food products in desks leading to pantry pests."

"The pest control company responded quickly to a complaint about bugs, only to find no bugs in the area, but what appeared to be cigarette ash at the work station."

"When tenants have a complaint, staff respond quickly and work hard to mitigate the issue, however it is important for tenants to contact the appropriate facility staff, otherwise there is no record of the complaint."

"Separately the Real Estate Division has been working with the DA's office to provide a short term solution to their office concerns and spent the better part of a year and hundreds of thousands of City resources helping staff move to a newly renovated office area on the 4th floor."

But Bastian says his office is frustrated. Cal OSHA and the Department of Public Health have been notified. "I'm very convinced that had this occurred in another city department this would have been dealt with a long time ago," Bastian concluded.