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Oakland Officials Call for Probes of Sewage Leaks

But it's unclear if anything will be done — even though more raw sewage flowed into Lake Merritt twice in the past month.



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Records show that the city failed to conduct water quality tests after sewage flowed into Lake Merritt. - PHOTO BY GABRIELLE CANON
  • Photo by Gabrielle Canon
  • Records show that the city failed to conduct water quality tests after sewage flowed into Lake Merritt.

This year's report, submitted at the end of September, stated that Oakland is in overall compliance even though the total volume of sewage spills recorded amounted to nearly 235,000 gallons — a 730 percent increase from the previous fiscal year.

The report was signed by Mitchell under penalty of perjury. But city sewer workers told the Express that the report and others filed with regulators contained misstatements and that city supervisors have repeatedly underreported the amount of sewage that spilled. Workers said several spill totals were changed by sewer supervisors and that the city's broken pipes spilled hundreds of thousands of gallons more sewage than Oakland reported.

The Express Jan. 10 cover story also detailed the decades-long battle that Oakland resident Terry Tobey waged against public works to fix the two mainline pipes that flank her property in the hills. For the last two years, raw sewage — laced with toxic root-killing chemicals — flowed from city-owned pipes onto her land. Tobey said the chemicals sickened her horse and her dog.

But the recent memo submitted by Mitchell in response to the Express' report refers to the problems on Tobey's property as "minor issues with public assets."

The consent decree also requires the city to adequately alert the public when there are spills — especially when sewage is discharged into bodies of water. Mitchell's memo states that "generally, OPW [Office of Public Works] notifies the community when a risk of exposure or contamination is high or imminent. Notifications take the form of limiting access in the contaminated areas with safety barricades and caution tape, posting warning signs in prominent locations."

But the Express' investigation revealed that wastewater from the city's broken sewer pipes regularly flows into lakes and creeks, and the city has failed to notify the public. Over the past several years, there have been regular sewage overflows into Lake Temescal. Public officials have cited toxic algae blooms as the reason behind repeated closures of the lake but never disclosed that the blooms may have been caused or worsened by the sewage spills. Even when a spill was occurring, signs posted around the lake did not disclose that sewage had made the lake unsafe.

Public records show that the city documented two sewage spills at Lake Temescal in December but failed to properly disclose them, and people continued to fish in the contaminated lake throughout the month.

At Lake Merritt, the city only posted signs indicating the presence of raw sewage at the spill site on the lake's eastern side. Near the boat dock or other areas where people picnic and birds nest, there was no indication that a spill had occurred — other than the foul smell wafting from the water.

Records also show that the city did not conduct water quality tests of the lake, even though Oakland's Asset Management Implementation Plan and Sanitary Sewer Management Plan, finalized in 2014, requires the city to do water quality monitoring and sampling for sanitary sewer overflows of "any volume that discharge sewage into Lake Merritt."

Mitchell declined several requests for an interview. A public works spokesperson said that, while they deny allegations of wrongdoing, the department is evaluating its practices and intends to fix any issues. "Oakland Public Works is developing right now a scope of work for an outside consulting firm to help us not only look at the situation at Ms. Tobey's property but also conduct a full review of our sewer program and help us ensure that, while we are meeting our regulatory requirements — when it comes to SSOs [sanitary sewer overflows] and community notification — that we are also setting a model to keep our best practices updated and our staff fully trained," spokesperson Sean Maher said. "We look forward to reporting more progress on that in the coming weeks."

Some concerned community members, meanwhile, are organizing to ensure the issue doesn't fall off the council's radar. In online forums and email chains, many residents have expressed anger and detailed obstacles that they've faced getting the department's help when problems arise.

"I am rabblerousing," Oakland resident Alice Friedemann said in an interview. Posting on Nextdoor, an online forum for neighborhoods, Friedemann outlined a seven-point action plan that received support by others in her community. It includes calling for the removal of Mitchell as director of Public Works and recalling Oakland's elected auditor, Brenda Roberts, who not only failed to disclose the city's broken sewer line problems when she was made aware of them in November 2016, but who also appears to have violated the city's whistleblower ordinance by alerting public works officials that she was meeting with a staff member who was exposing potential misconduct, current and ex-city workers said. (Roberts is up for reelection this year.)

Friedemann, who lives near Lake Temescal, has spent the last several years trying to get the city and the East Bay Regional Parks District to clean up the lake. "I used to swim there and I walk around the lake every day. I am so upset by this," she said. "You smell it now and then and you just think that's the algae. It really impacts the community. The quality of life goes down."


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