Sewage Spill Highlights Some Larger City Issues

I know some residents are concerned that recent criticism of city management may tarnish the image of the South Pasadena that they work so hard to promote. However, I wonder if these residents feel that an “image’’ of harmony is more important than addressing the underlying issues threatening the very foundation of our city? Is image more important than our drinking water, the environment or our rights as citizens? These are the issues I believe are at stake here.

In the aftermath of the heavy-handed litigation tactics used by city management against our friend Alison Smith (“I Am Being Bullied,” The Review, Oct. 25), my husband and I began looking into South Pasadena’s sanitary-sewage system. Through our research, we learned that the cured-in-place process (CIPP) used to repair 60 percent of the city’s sewage lines over the past few years has a known defect, causing massive blockages in sewage mainlines. We also discovered that the California Water Board requires cities to maintain a Sanitary Sewage Management Plan (SSMP) and train staff in emergency response protocol for sanitary sewage overflows (SSO’s).

The purpose of the emergency response plan is to protect our waterways, local groundwater and the health of residents in the event of a sewage spill. The plan is required to be maintained both onsite and online, updated every five years and audited for performance every two years with continual training for city employees and contractors. When we requested a copy of the SSMP from the city, the staff simply didn’t know such a plan existed. The plan has apparently been in off-site storage for the past six years, without the required update or audits performed, and is only now online as a result of our inquiry.

Had they trained on the plan, as required, they would have known they were required to respond immediately to an emergency call. They would have known that telling a caller it wasn’t the city’s problem, or that they were about to go on a three-day weekend, was not an acceptable response. And after the 30-hour spill that took place at our friend’s house, they would have known that the city was required by law to immediately clean-up the spill, in its entirety, and contact state and local agencies.

While they did file an SSO report with the California Integrated Water Quality System (CIWQS) in February 2018, the city grossly underreported the duration and volume of the spill. They claimed the spill, originating in the mainline, lasted 90 minutes — generating 300 gallons of waste (3.3 gallons/min flow rate), which they cleaned up.  The actual 30-hour spill generated over 2,000 gallons of sewage, left unabated, and should have triggered a Category 2 SSO response — report to the Department of Public Health within two hours, the California Office of Emergency Services within 24 hours, and CIWQ within three days to secure the health and safety of residents.

Despite these findings, I don’t fault the Public Works staff for the city’s negligence in this case. The department is understaffed, underfunded and dealing with decades of deferred maintenance under an ever-revolving door of department leadership. The Public Works Department needs and deserves our collective support to build them back up.

However, I do question city management’s response to the incident. Instead of taking accountability and focusing energies to understand/address the underlying issues that led to the spill and negligent response, they chose to use substantial resources to attack an injured party. They focused on winning a case by any means, and at any cost necessary, rather than doing what was ethically right.

And now, when we need public-works oversight more than ever, city management and one council member, a former public works attorney, are pushing to dismantle the Public Works Commission, claiming that public works is not a priority. Right. The PW Commission acts as an advisory board to the City Council on matters pertaining to subdivisions, zoning, parks and boulevards and subjects that have to do with the orderly and consistent physical development of the city. With an upcoming General and Specific Plan update, an unprecedented number of new development projects in the works, and decades of deferred maintenance, how do we not benefit from community oversight?

While I understand the desire to maintain an image of continued harmony, if we genuinely love South Pasadena, we must ensure that the infrastructure is secure. We must ensure that our Public Works Commission remains intact and demand transparency and honesty from city management. We must also adopt a mindset that promotes a culture of asking leaders difficult questions and sees institutional mistakes as an opportunity for growth and improvement. Then we can come together as a community to thoughtfully address issues to  safeguard the future.

Sheila Rossi, Fairview Avenue