- Photo by Gabrielle Canon
- On Jan. 15, raw sewage started spilling into Lake Merritt for the second time in a month.
Oakland Public Works Department officials say they plan to hire an outside consultant to conduct a "full review" of the city's broken sewer line problems, which have resulted in repeated sewage spills into Lake Temescal and other local bodies of water. In addition, Councilmember Dan Kalb, North Oakland, has requested a report from public works and an examination of evidence that the city submitted official reports to state and federal regulators that contained false information about sewage spills. State officials are already investigating Oakland's compliance with environmental laws.
The city's actions come in response to a Jan. 10 Express investigation that exposed serious shortcomings with Oakland's sanitary sewer system, including a history of city officials underreporting sewage spills, a repeated failure to alert the public about raw sewage flowing into Lake Temescal, and the city's continued reliance on a private contractor that Oakland workers said does shoddy work (see "Broken Pipes, Broken System").
"It is a very serious issue that the city should not sweep under the rug," Kalb said in an interview. "It appears that there needs to be some type of investigation that brings everything to light and answers the questions — whatever those answers may be. I am not making any pre-judgment of something nefarious. But there are valid questions, and there needs to be a thorough set of answers, and we don't have that yet. I am hoping we get that eventually." Kalb was joined in his request for a probe of public works by Councilmembers Annie Campbell Washington and Abel Guillen.
However, it's not clear if Oakland Public Works will thoroughly investigate its problems. The department's director, Jason Mitchell, continues to downplay the city's serious sewer-line issues and maintains that his agency has done nothing wrong — even as more spills occur in the city. On Jan. 15, raw sewage started spewing into Lake Merritt for the second time in a month. Residents at 1200 Lakeshore Ave. on the eastern side of the lake said they could see and smell the untreated wastewater flow out of a manhole cover in front of the property and stream into the tidal lagoon and wildlife sanctuary.
"In the past month, we have had two spills that I am aware of," said a resident of the building who asked not to be identified.
State records show the first spill into Lake Merritt in that area began on Dec. 9 and lasted through Dec. 11, sending more than 3,000 gallons of untreated sewage into the lake. But the resident said she believes the amount was much higher. An email she shared with the Express, in which she reached out to the mayor's office and her councilmember, Guillen, shows that she saw the sewage begin flowing on Dec. 8. She said she received no response to the email.
"[Sewage] was flowing down the sidewalk and into the gutter," she explained. "I estimated the flow to be like five gallons a minute or maybe more. I was thinking, 'How long would it take to fill up a bucket?' And there was a lot more [coming out] than if you were just standing at the hose." She said that throughout the weekend she saw the spill every time she came and went from her home. "It smelled like raw sewage, and it looked like murky brown water, and it went directly into the lake." She added that during a community menorah lighting at the lake days after the spill was stopped, the smell still lingered.
As the Express noted in its Jan. 10 investigation, public records, official documents, and emails show that Oakland's Public Works Department has repeatedly misstated the start times of sewage spills and underreported the number of gallons flowing on city streets, into bodies of water, and onto properties across Oakland for years.
The city has also failed to properly alert residents when the sewage enters local bodies of water that are used for swimming and fishing. According to state documents, raw sewage contains more than a thousand times the levels of viruses and bacteria than properly treated water, posing a potential public health risk and a negative impact on local ecology. In the past month alone, along with the two spills into Lake Merritt, sewage has poured into Lake Temescal and Sausal Creek, which flows directly into San Francisco Bay.
Nonetheless, in a public memo sent to the mayor and the city council on Jan. 17, Oakland Public Works director Mitchell denied that there were any issues of noncompliance or evidence of falsified records, noting that the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, which conducted an inspection in July 2017, has not issued any fines or notices of violations against the city.
Regulatory officials from the board's Wastewater and Enforcement Division said the results of that inspection have not yet been released and confirmed that there is an ongoing investigation into the city's practices. "Our enforcement activities take a long time," said Bill Johnson, who heads the Wastewater and Enforcement Division. "It takes time to do an investigation and to move that forward."
Mitchell's memo also asserted that Oakland is in compliance with a consent decree the city signed in 2014 with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and two environmental groups after they sued Oakland for its repeated illegal sewage discharges. The decree requires the city to spend $300 million over 22 years to repair and replace its broken sewer lines. As part of the settlement, Oakland Public Works must submit an annual report detailing its progress on rehabilitating the city's 900-plus miles of aging underground infrastructure, some of which is composed of century-old clay pipes.