Summer 2005 sewage spill fine cut in half
KINGS BEACH – The contractor and homeowners involved in last July’s sewage spill at Lake Tahoe may face a lower fine after state water quality officials admitted Thursday they miscalculated the amount of sewage that went into the lake here.
The Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board had originally estimated that 120,000 gallons of raw sewage spilled into Lake Tahoe after an employee with Pacific Built Inc. punctured a sewer line while building a private pier. However, after witnesses testified during Thursday’s hearing that the amount was overestimated by the state, recalculations showed that roughly 56,000 gallons of sewage entered the lake.
“On behalf of the staff, we admit there was a mistake in the calculations,” said Steven Blum, senior staff counsel for the State Water Resources Control Board. “It is half of what we originally thought.”
Staff said their calculations were based on information from the North Tahoe Public Utility District, which led the cleanup during the spill.
The $700,000 penalty Kings Beach property owners C. Geoffrey and Christine Davis and Hans and Margaret Coffeng and Pacific Built originally faced was reduced to $325,000 by water board officials.
At the suggestion of the board’s lawyer, the board members postponed making a decision on the fine and asked Blum to return at a later date with a rewrite of the staff’s recommendation. Lahontan Executive Officer Harold Singer said the board will most likely vote on the fine at its Tahoe meeting in July.
Although the hearing is closed to further testimony, board chair Amy Horne said she would allow the contractor and homeowners to comment on the new order.
The July 19 spill occurred when a worker with Tahoe City-based Pacific Built punctured a hole in a buried 14-inch sewer main line while building a private pier for the two property owners.
Four beaches were closed for 10 days and another one was shut down for 16 days. Businesses in Kings Beach and Tahoe Vista also reported a loss of $80,000 as a result of the discharge.
North Tahoe Public Utility District’s lawyer Neil Eskind said the district filed a lawsuit Thursday against the homeowners and contractor for $248,000. A bill in that amount was sent to the parties involved in January for cleanup and remediation expenses the District incurred due to the spill.
The homeowners also face claims from local businesses and other property owners, according to Mark Hudak, counsel for the Davis and Coffeng families. Hudak said his clients should not be held responsible for the spill since they were not aware of the location of the sewer main line. He noted that signs indicating utility lines were located in front of the house on Highway 28, but not on the beach. There was also no indication of a sewer line easement on the property owners’ titles, according to Hudak.
“The title companies blew it. They should pay, but they won’t,” Hudak said. “The homeowners are in a difficult situation here. It’s a continuing nightmare for the homeowners. They shouldn’t be punished for something that wasn’t in their control.”
Tahoe City attorney Drew Briner said his client, Pacific Built, should also not be liable for the spill. He said paying the penalty would put the family-owned company in the region out of business.
“Pacific Built has been operating at a loss for the past three years,” Briner said.
He said Pacific Built performed two site reviews before beginning construction and there were no signs or markers indicating there was a sewer main line on the beach. However, there was a point of contention that the contractor should have called a toll-free hotline before they dug, which would have researched whether there were utilities nearby or not.
“The contractor drove piles without making a simple call to service alert,” Blum said. “Every permit to excavate is invalid without making a call to underground service alert.”
But Briner said marine contractors in Tahoe are not required to call the hotline and that his client would have called the public utility district if signs were present to indicate the sewer line.
Briner also blamed the North Tahoe Public Utility District for not temporarily repairing the line, which caused more sewage to spill out, he said.
Lee Schegg, public works director for the district, said it would have taken too long to get the right tool to temporarily fix the line, and that it made more sense to just do a permanent fix.
The permitting process for the pier, which took four years, was also questioned since none of the permitting agencies mentioned the sewer line to the homeowners.
“You are holding back information to prevent toxins that go into our lake,” Pam Holton Chandlin, a Kings Beach resident, told the board. “It is your job to alert the public. The bottom line is there was no line of communication between public agencies.”
Jordan Khan, assistant counsel for the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, said that the homeowners and contractor should have to pay a “substantial fine.”
But Briner pleaded with the board: “Do not put Pacific Built out of business to make a message.”
How did the sewage miscalculation happen?
Harold Singer, executive officer for the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board, said that the number of gallons that went into Lake Tahoe after last July’s sewage spill were miscalculated based on how much was pumped from a satellite pump station.
Lee Schegg, public works director for the North Tahoe Public Utility District, said he agrees with the new calculations by Lahontan that 56,000 gallons of raw sewage spilled into Lake Tahoe and the beach. Schegg originally calculated that 120,000 gallons of sewage spilled out.
“It’s all owed to clear thinking,” Schegg said. “There were so many variables with hydraulics and activities. Every set of calculations had a series of assumptions. The assumptions were refined.”
The figures from Earl Hagadorn, a consulting civil engineer, were used to determine the correct amount of sewage that went into the lake.
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