Agency learns from environmental mistake |

Agency learns from environmental mistake

Andy Bourelle

An East Shore sewage leak and a confusion-filled debacle in trying to stop the flowing waste should lead to improvements in how sewer, water and regulatory agencies work together on the Nevada side of the Lake Tahoe Basin, according to environmental officials.

An environmental consulting firm involved earlier this year in a sewage leak should be submitting a proposal to the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection within the next few weeks outlining ways to avoid what happened on that spring evening.

“It’s almost fortunate this situation happened, because it’s bringing to light a big problem,” said Joe Livak, enforcement branch supervisor for NDEP’s Bureau of Water Pollution Control. “A minimal amount of sewage entered the lake; it just revealed a big problem.”

Here’s what happened.

On May 20, crews were drilling near Lakeside Cove Resort on East Shore, about three-fourths of a mile south of the Cave Rock Country Store. They were hired by the consulting firm of Harding Lawson Associates, which was hired by the Nevada Department of Transportation.

The workers were supposed to find the area’s “forced sewer main” with hand digging, but they ended up hitting the sewer main with a power auger.

Sewage started flowing.

The workers called the Round Hill General Improvement District, because that is who NDOT said owned the line.

Not us, said Round Hill.

Workers then called 911, and the Tahoe-Douglas Fire Protection District responded. However, firefighters didn’t know who owned the line either.

Finally, another call was made to Round Hill, and this time officials told the workers to call Janet Murphy, general manager of the Tahoe-Douglas Sewer District.

They did. She turned the line off within 15 minutes. However, it was more than an hour after the pipe was first hit.

Livak said the crews and the responding firefighters did an excellent job of building dikes and throwing down tarps to stop the sewage from hitting the lake. However, about 10 gallons did enter Tahoe, and that would have been averted had the proper person been notified quickly.

“It was a big scramble to figure out who to call to shut the pump off,” Livak said. “There’s no coordination up there. Nobody had the right phone numbers. Nobody was willing to help anyone out. There’s a bunch of little district’s up there, and the fire department doesn’t have a clue of which one’s which. There’s no coordinated response.

“Imagine your house is burning down and nobody has the number for the fire department,” he added. “You call 911, and they say, ‘We don’t know.'”

NDEP named Harding and Lawson – even though “there’s plenty of blame to go around,” Livak said – as the responsible party. Instead of fining the consultant, however, NDEP asked them to come up with a way to avoid such a mess in the future. At a cost of $9,500, the group is supposed to create a plan – maybe something like a small phonebook – that will identify what agencies have sewer, water and regulatory jurisdictions on the Nevada side.

All agencies doing work there will eventually have the document at their disposal, so events such as the May 20 one can be avoided.

“This is good for (Harding Lawson), too,” Livak said. “They think this is something really needed. It’s a win-win situation for everyone.”

Murphy, from the Tahoe-Douglas Sewer Protection District, said she was pleased something proactive is coming out of the event.

“Nobody’s perfect. You can’t begrudge anybody for a mistake,” she said. “As long as everyone learns from this, and it doesn’t happen again, I’m happy.”

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