Water board official explains process with sewage spills

A Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board official Thursday laid out the process ahead in the investigation of Hollister for two sewage spills totaling nearly a million gallons into the local river bed.

The state water board last week issued Hollister a notice of violation for separate 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 prompted the state to fine Hollister $1.2 million and enact a complete moratorium on all construction for more than six years. The prior moratorium had a negative impact on affected housing, industrial jobs and commercial development for several years.

The latest spills occurred on or around July 16 and on Sept. 6, 2016, but city officials never issued a public notice on the matter. Instead, city staff members filled the related leak of a diversion valve in a sewer line with inflatable plugs, which eventually failed.

As of Thursday morning, the Free Lance submitted one public records request to the City of Hollister and one request to the water board for documents and emails related to the spills.

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

Water Board Enforcement Coordinator Thea Tryon couldn’t speak to the future outcome, as the investigation is ongoing. However, she explained the enforcement process going forward.

“That whole process can take some time and we may settle with the responsible party,” Tryon said Thursday morning by phone. “And when that happens, the settlement offer is sent out and that is out for 30 days for public comment.”

Tryon said the responsible party has two options.

“What either happens is, say we decide to take enforcement. We send them the complaint,” she said. “Then they can choose to either enter settlement discussions with us—completely confidential—or if they don’t want to do that, it goes to our board for a hearing. Most enforcement cases end up in settlement discussions.”
The notice of violation states the July 16 spill had a total spill volume of 600,000 gallons, while the Sept. 6 spill had a total spill volume of 338,524 gallons. Portions of each spill discharged into the San Benito River bed, part of a watershed that includes the city and county.

“Clearly this is a serious issue and our local residents deserve to have a clear reporting of what occurred,” County Supervisor Robert Rivas said in a Thursday morning email to the Free Lance. “I don’t think this is the time to point fingers or play the blame game. The goal should be to prevent this from happening again. The Mayor must issue a full accounting of events and a plan to prevent such environmental disasters from ever occurring again. Period.”

City Manager Bill Avera said Wednesday that staff members went out with hand tools and cleaned what was left in the river, which was dry at that point. He downplayed the amount of sewage spilled and 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.

San Benito Foods did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Tryon addressed potential environmental concerns.

“We never want to have constituents going into a creek; it’s prohibited by the permit,” Tryon said. “You don’t want things that are not normal to the creek going into the creek.”

Tryon said that she wasn’t aware of any spills after the Sept. 6 spill, but that that didn’t mean there weren’t any recently with the rain.

In an email after the interview, Tryon said staff checked the California Integrated Waste Quality System—a computer system used by the water board—and there were no other spill violations reported since the Sept. 6 event.

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