By Judie Marks
Although state prison authorities last week denied that any sewage had been dumped into Mule Creek in Ione, it later was acknowledged that a sewage spill did take place there on Aug. 16.
Brian Parriott, spokesman for the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, called the Ledger Dispatch late last week to say that he had been mistaken when he said no sewage had gone into the creek from Mule Creek State Prison.
“The state Environmental Protection Agency is looking into a suspected spill of raw sewage into Mule Creek from an unknown source that might have come from the prison,” Parriott said. “We are leaning toward believing it did come from the prison.”
Last week, a neighbor of the prison, Virginia Silva, who lives adjacent to Mule Creek, told both the Ione City Council and the Amador County Board of Supervisors, that in the summertime, when the creek is mostly dried up, “potholes of water” remain that sometimes contain “stinking black sewage in our creek.”
At the prison, Eric Reyes, an administrative assistant to the public information officer, said that 20,000 gallons of secondary treated effluent ran into the dry creek bed. Secondary treatment of sewage is that in which “substances that readily settle or float” have been separated from the liquid.
It takes one more treatment, to a third, or tertiary, stage before water from sewage can be used for irrigation. Tertiary treatment removes nutrients such as phosphorous and nitrogen, as well as a high percentage of the suspended solids. In many places, including Ione, water of that quality is sprayed on golf courses.
Parriott later said the brown water that spilled into Mule Creek had been intended for the prison´s “sprayfield,” where treated sewage is routinely sprayed for dispersal.
“The sprayfield did overflow,” Parriott said. “It may have had higher a nitrate count than is normally acceptable, but it was not raw sewage coming from the toilets.”
At the prison, Reyes said he had been told by Steve Melendez, the prison´s acting plant manager, that the accident occurred because a manual switch was used to spray the effluent from a holding reservoir onto the sprayfield. “It was supposed to turn off in a certain period of time so it doesn´t leak out,” he said. “But the pump was left on, and 20,000 gallons went into the creek.”
The mishap was reported to both the state´s Environmental Protection Agency and the state Regional Water Quality Control Agency, Reyes said.
The prison was required to develop an “action plan” to prevent it from happening again, he said. That plan calls for installation of an electronic timer so that staff can start the pumps and the timer will automatically shut it down if someone forgets to shut it off.
According to Parriott, the prison also is planning to install valves that would limit the time an inmate can spend in the shower. He said the prison also plans to install valves to limit flushing of inmates´ toilets to three flushes per hour. The goal of both the showering and flushing limits would be to reduce the total amount of sewage being produced at the prison.
Last week, Julio Guerra, chief operator for the city of Ione´s wastewater treatment plant, said he had toured the prison´s sewage treatment plant and learned that although it is only rated to handle 740,000 gallons per day, it routinely exceeds 900,000 gallons per day. At times of peak usage, such as in the mornings, when inmates are showering and flushing toilets, Guerra said, it hits surges that if continued throughout the day, would amount to 2 million to 3 million gallons a day.
Reyes also answered questions about plans for a 400-bed expansion of the Mule Creek State Prison.
While the prison was designed to house 200 Level I (least dangerous) prisoners, it now houses at least 374 in that category, he said. It was also designed to hold 1,000 prisoners in Level III, but now houses more than 2,140 in that category. And it was designed for 500 Level IV prisoners, but now has more than twice that number, at about 1,100.
The total number of prisoners the institution was designed to house is 1,700, he acknowledged, but as of April 11, it was housing at least 3,614. More recent figures indicated the prison is housing a total of 3,983 prisoners in the three categories.
What is being proposed for the expansion, Reyes said, is converting the minimum security facility portion of the prison to a “commingled” Level I and II facility, which would require enhancing the existing perimeter with a double fence and adding four gun towers, as well as sally ports and an entrance building for staff and visitors.
Originally, the 866-acre prison, which was opened in June 1987, was designed as a Level III prison, but the Levels I and IV were added as it grew. Level IV, Reyes said, is for prisoners who have what is called a “sensitive needs yard” – prisoners who, because of their former gang memberships, other kinds of enemies or high profiles, are in danger while they are incarcerated.
One of the Level III prisoners at Mule Creek State Prison, he confirmed, is Charles “Tex” Watson, a member of the “Manson Family,” convicted along with others of the 1969 Tate-LaBianca murders in Los Angeles.
By comparison, Reyes said, the minimum security Level I prisoners work to maintain the prison grounds and landscaping and even send a crew to help maintain the grounds of the Galt Training Facility.
Reprinted with permission from Amador Ledger Dispatch