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Broken Pipes, Broken System

Oakland has failed to report hundreds of thousands of gallons of toxic sewage spills that have sickened animals, damaged property, and polluted waterways, including Lake Temescal.


  • Illustration by Brian Breneman

In mid-November, Terry Tobey stood in the pouring rain, staring solemnly at a ravine spouting a stream of sewage water as it cascaded down a hill and onto her Oakland property. During storms, the city's broken sewer pipes overflow and the problem gets worse, she said.

"It's bad. It's really bad," she said, starting to cry. "My whole property is like a septic pit. It's been years and years and years of sewage draining here."

Tobey, a 60-year-old Oakland native who grew up on the small ranch in the hills in the city's Oakmore neighborhood where she now lives, inherited the property in the early 2000s from her parents when they died. Over the past decade, she has been fighting a one-woman battle against the city to save her home and protect her pets. One of her horses and one of her dogs experienced skin lesions and incontinence after sewage wastewater and toxic chemicals flowed onto her property last year.

Tobey’s problems are also indicative of those that have plagued the city of Oakland's sewer system for years. In 2014, Oakland officials agreed to a settlement and specific requirements for rehabbing more than 900 miles of aging sewer lines after the city — along with five other municipalities and East Bay MUD — were sued by two environmental organizations and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Under the settlement, also called a "consent decree," Oakland was required to implement a $300 million action plan over 22 years to systematically repair its leaky sewer pipes, which regularly have caused overflows of raw sewage and chemicals into San Francisco Bay.

Along with alerting the public when there's a large spill or a situation that could affect someone's home or business, the city of Oakland is required under the consent decree to report sewage overflows and its progress in meeting the action plan to regulatory agencies and the parties in the lawsuit.

But thousands of pages of public documents and emails reviewed by the Express, along with interviews with city sewer department staff, regulatory agencies, and local residents, reveal that the Oakland Department of Public Works has failed to report hundreds of thousands of gallons of sewage overflows, and city supervisors have sometimes submitted documents to regulators that contain false information. The city also failed to properly alert residents and the required agencies in a timely manner after spills occurred. As a result, dangerous bacteria and toxic chemicals have flooded into streets, onto properties, and into storm drains — or directly into regional bodies of water like Lake Temescal, where people fish and swim — without public knowledge. In fact, there is evidence that the repeated closures of Lake Temescal in recent years were caused, at least in part, by nearby spills from city of Oakland sewer pipes.

In addition, over the past two years, top-level officials in public works and in city government have repeatedly been made aware of the ongoing problems by staffers and by residents like Tobey who experienced the issues firsthand. The Express has also learned that state regulators are investigating the city's sewage maintenance system for possible legal violations. And it turns out that sewage from the home of Oakland City Councilmember Annie Campbell Washington, whose property is located directly above that of Tobey, flows into one of the city's broken pipes.

Records and interviews also show that the city has continued to use a private contractor to repair sewer lines, despite the fact the contractor, Andes Construction, has a record of shoddy work that must later be fixed by city staffers, according to Oakland workers. In fact, last month, the city hired Andes to finally fix the broken sewer lines above Tobey's home, but the contractor failed to do the work properly, according to a city whistleblower.

Nonetheless, city officials maintain that Oakland is in compliance with the federal consent decree and federal and state environmental laws.

In fact, for years, city officials told Tobey that she was wrong about the sewage that she could see and smell in her yard — even as she watched her property slowly fall apart.

Tobey said problems at her property actually began in the 1980s, when a storm drain channel formed amid the towering eucalyptus trees that grow out of the hillside overlooking the barn where her three horses live. The channel developed after the land above her family's home was graded to create the Melvin Court residential community. Since then, the channel has eroded the slope, creating a cliff and causing a large section of once-flat land to sink away.

Along with that channel, two sewage pipes run through her property and a third lines the perimeter above the hillside. Over the years, the aging, overburdened, and compromised pipes released wastewater containing untreated sewage and dangerous tree root-clearing chemicals down the hill, where it runs alongside Tobey's barn and into her yard.

Beginning in 2009, when she pulled up a rotted fence post to reveal what she called a "cavern of sewage" flowing underneath her horse arena, she has made calls, written emails and letters, and shared photos and videos of green-tinged sludge and white puffs of noxious root foam on her land. But she struggled to get city officials to take her seriously and address the problems.