Updated: City manager downplays sewer spills, blames equipment

The sewer ponds at the end of the South Street is where the city holds some of its wastewater. A recent spill into the river has drawn a penalty from the state.

A state water board issued Hollister a notice of violation last week related to two 2016 sewage spills discharged into the San Benito River, according to a document obtained by the Free Lance.

Those spills came nearly 15 years after the city’s sewer spill into the San Benito River prompting the state to force Hollister into build a new, eight-figure treatment plant while shutting down all construction until its completion.

The latest spills occurred last summer, but city officials never issued a public notice about the matter. Instead, city staff members filled the related leak of a diversion valve in a sewer line with inflatable plugs, one of which eventually failed.

Additionally, the city didn’t inform the state water board until local environmental health officials became aware of the situation, as noted in the notice of violation.

A Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board document dated Jan. 13 of this year stated the first spill occurred on or around July 16 due to a slide-gate valve failure. The second spill occurred on Sept. 6 at the same location due to the failure of the same slide-gate valve that the city had plugged as a repair after the first spill.

The water board requires submission of information, including a technical report, by Feb. 27.

On Tuesday morning when asked about the state action, Mayor Ignacio Velazquez said he’d received some of the information.

“I need to look into it, find out what happened and who we hold accountable for it,” Velazquez said.

The document stated how the July 16 spill had a total spill volume of 600,000 gallons. The Sept. 6 spill had a total spill volume of 338,524 gallons. Portions of each spill discharged into the San Benito River.

City Manager Bill Avera responded by downplaying the amount of sewage spilled and deflecting blame on the equipment. He noted that much more waste is produced each day at the San Benito Foods cannery, the only user of the domestic treatment pond on Hollister’s west side, than the amount spilled.

“We process about two million gallons a day of effluent from the cannery,” Avera said Wednesday. “What was getting through the diversion valve was relatively small.”

Avera said staff members went out with hand tools and cleaned what was left in the river, which was dry at that point.

“We had the regional water board out there right away, and fish and game,” Avera said. “You’re not just allowed to go into the river, so we made sure we had everyone’s permission to go in and clean it up. We also asked what the most appropriate method was; they don’t like heavy equipment in the beds. We went in there with hand tools. There wasn’t much in there, though.”

Avera said the spill was all cannery waste, not domestic sewage.

The city did not issue any public statements or mailers about the spills or deteriorated valve, he confirmed. Avera said he addressed it during a report to city council members.

County Environmental Health Manager Darryl Wong said that whatever went into the river was scooped out.

“Luckily, the rivers are usually dry, so all it’s going to do is go out and cause a terrible smell,” Wong said. “Then it would dry up.”

Potential enforcement actions for multiple alleged violations vary depending on the State Water Code section, but include possible fines of $1,000 per day, $5,000 per day, $15,000 per day and/or $25,000 per day.

According to the notice of violation, the city initially reported that the slide-gate (diversion valve) on the sanitary sewer line between San Benito Foods and the wastewater treatment plant was left open due to operator error and diverted tomato processing wastewater away from the treatment plant and to the Apricot Lane storm sewer, a downstream open drainage ditch, and the San Benito River. The city reported that the spill occurred because the diversion valve had deteriorated and subsequently failed.

Avera said that no one in particular is responsible for the spill and that it was just part of a failing infrastructure system on that particular line. He said the city hasn’t communicated with San Benito Foods about consequences.

“It’d be a hard argument for me to make that they’re responsible for a fine on a city facility that failed,” Avera said.

Avera said tomato waste is acidic and ate through the seal on the diversion valve after years of use.

“Once the first spill was detected, we bought two inflatable plugs,” Avera said. “The storm drain is about 48 inches, huge, so on the other side of the valve we put this inflatable plug. The inflatable plug is pretty heavy rubber material, but it broke. … We bought two plugs so we put the other in right away.”

Councilman Karson Klauer said situations like the spills are disappointing.

“It’s disappointing anytime you have a situation like this,” Klauer said. “I think it’s unfortunate for residents who live in the area; it creates issues and stress for staff. Because of the type of public improvement this is, if it’s not fixed in the near term, it could cause issues with industry here in town.”

At Tuesday’s city meeting, council members approved an item relating to the replacement of the valve structure.

“What (council members) approved last night was actual installation,” Avera said. “It’s a new type of valve that’s resistant to acids. It should minimize as much as possible any deterioration of that valve.”

The notice of violation states water board staff issued the alert and requirement of a technical report for the following steps:

Thoroughly investigate these incidents.
Characterize circumstances related to the overflows and odors.
Assess the city’s compliance with applicable regulations.
Determine the severity of the potential water quality and public health problems caused by the odors and discharges.
Determine whether the city has taken all appropriate corrective actions needed to prevent similar future odors and overflows.

Due to odor complaints around the time of the July spill, the document states the odor characteristics match the definition of nuisance pursuant to California Water Code section 13050(m) and represent violations of SSS Order Prohibition C.2 for at least five days. The document also notes that the discharges to the San Benito River are violations of SSS Order Prohibition C.1 from July 16 through Aug. 11 and on Sept. 6.

Additionally, the notice of violation states that unauthorized waste discharges to waters of the United States violate federal Clean Water Act section 301, which prohibits all discharges to such waters except those authorized by a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit.

Other violations noted in the document include the city’s failure to report the July 16 spill upon discovery to the San Benito County Environmental Health Department and to the Office of Emergency Services.

With the new sewer spills, it dredges up memories of the city’s massive problems with a 2002 sewer spill that led to a building shutdown.

Back in May 2002, the city dealt with a 15 million-gallon wastewater spill that went into the San Benito River. Hollister faced a $1.2 million fine from the Regional Water Quality Control Board, as well as a complete moratorium on all construction for more than six years. At the time, the spill also postponed a new freshman campus at San Benito High School and a second city fire station.

The city is still recovering from the moratorium, which affected homes, industrial jobs and commercial development for several years. At the time of the spill, city officials blamed the breach on a gopher hole.

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