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Amador County asks EPA to Step In On Mule Creek Prison Pollution

By Judie Marks

Mule Creek State Prison in Ione is doing such a bad job of treating its sewage – and the Regional Water Quality Control Board is doing such a bad job of overseeing the activity there – that the Environmental Protection Agency should be asked to step in and take over.

That was the unanimous vote of the Amador County Board of Supervisors at their meeting Tuesday, after they saw an inspection report from the RWQCB.

“I think they were late on this and didn´t issue what they should have – a cease and desist (order) – for not just months, but years,” said Dist. 2 Supervisor Richard Forster.

Forster said employees of the prison have approached him on the street to tell him “how deplorable things are.” That fact, he said, “shows the regulatory board is not doing its job.”

The time has come, he said, to ask Congressman Dan Lungren and Sen. Barbara Boxer “to require in the most urgent terms that the EPA come in and take over oversight” of the problem. The documentation before the board, Forster said, “shows this is an emergency and needs immediate action.”

In introducing the topic, County Administrative Officer Patrick Blacklock noted that none of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger´s prison expansion bills passed during the recent special legislative session. But, Blacklock told the supervisors, “Ultimately they will reappear.”

Among the governor´s plans for relieving overcrowding in the state´s prisons was a proposal to spend $48 million to add 400 more inmates to the nearly 4,000 already incarcerated at Mule Creek. The institution was designed to house 1,700.

The report before the supervisors detailed an inspection done Aug. 16, and noted that the last inspection of the prison´s wastewater facility was in August 2002.

T

he recent inspection came one day after a plant operator failed to turn off a pump overnight, resulting in 20,000 gallons of secondary-treated effluent to be discharged into the dry bed of Mule Creek. The prison´s secondary effluent, the report notes, “appeared to be of very poor quality.”

While on scene for the inspection, the Regional Water Quality Control Board employees were told that a previous, unreported spill of about 12,000 gallons of treated wastewater had occurred about two weeks earlier.

The treatment plant is operating far over its capacity. The inspectors were told that 810,000 gallons of wastewater were treated on the day the plant was inspected, though the plant is designed to treat only 740,000 gallons a day.

At peak times in the mornings, when inmates are showering and using the toilets, the flows reach 2,000 gallons per minute, according to the sewer plant´s chief plant operator. If that rate continued all day, it would result in 2.88 million gallons a day flowing through the system.

Inspectors noted that several spray heads were stuck in one position or had water trickling from them, rather than spraying. The report notes that solids that were supposed to have been removed from the effluent likely are clogging portions of the irrigation system, resulting in the stuck spray heads.

“This condition may lead to increased instances of over-saturation of certain areas in the sprayfields and runoff to surface waters,” according to the report. The treated wastewater is supposed to be disposed of by spraying it as irrigation on 296 acres of nearby pastureland.

Solids that have been separated in the treatment process are disposed of at the Kiefer Road landfill in Sacramento County.

The demands being placed on the sewer treatment plant are so excessive that “pass-through of solids makes adequate disinfection of the wastewater both difficult and unlikely,” the report says.

Although regulations require monthly “discharger self-monitoring reports,” the Regional Water Quality Control Board´s files did not show any reports filed by the treatment plant for July, August or December of 2005, or for February, March, April or June of 2006. In addition, the board stated that no record could be found of a required annual report being submitted in 2005.

In addition to the nearly 4,000 inmates housed at the prison, the sewage treatment plant serves the Preston Youth Correctional Facility and the California Department of Forestry´s Fire Academy. No flow meter exists to show how much sewage comes from each of the three institutions.

While a “desktop study” in 2004 showed that the sewer treatment plant was adequate for the prison´s population then, the report states, “It is unclear if this study considered the flows from Preston and the CDF Fire Academy.”

In addition to serving the two other nearby state institutions, the sewer treatment plant takes care of any wastewater generated by the three industries housed by the prison: coffee grinding and packaging, meat packing and a laundry.

In a memo dated June 30 to Roseanne Campbell, warden of the prison, the state board recommends that the prison implement a water conservation program. A second memo, dated July 7, from Dustin Valiquette, chief plant operator, to Steve Melendes, chief engineer of the plant, states that the plant “is failing to treat sewage to state of California standards.”

Valiquette cites three reasons for that failure: the plant is poorly designed, the equipment and sprayfields are “vastly undersized” and “third and most detrimental is the continual addition of inmates to Mule Creek State Prison, causing ever-increasing flows.”

Valiquette notes in the memo that he was told the plant “has never been able to handle flows greater than 650,000 gallons per day,” though it has been averaging 814,000 gallons a day.

“During these peak flow times,” he wrote, “we are discharging 300 to 800 pounds of sludge to the pond and sprayfields. This is a clear violation of our discharge permit.”

Another document sent to the supervisors was a five-page letter to the prison´s warden, Rosanne Campbell, signed by Pamela Creedon, executive officer of the Central Valley Region of the California Regional Water Quality Control Board.

That letter directs the prison to provide a report by Oct. 10 describing how it will comply with the state´s requirements for monitoring and reporting and how it will comply with the limitations on the amount of effluent that goes through the plant.

By Oct. 16, the letter directs, the prison will submit another report detailing what control features will be installed to prevent runoff from the prison property into surface drainage or creeks and will provide a proposed timeline for completing those improvements.

And by Dec. 31, the letter states, the prison must submit a long-term plan to upgrade the wastewater facilities and tell how those improvements will be financed. The prison is told to show how it will accommodate projected future flows through at least 2018, and is directed to install groundwater monitoring wells that would show whether contaminants are leaching into the groundwater.

The supervisors voted 3-0 to ask Lungren and Boxer to step in and relieve the Regional Water Quality Control Board of its authority and to ask the EPA to assume responsibility for overseeing sewage treatment at the prison.

Jerry Cassesi, a resident of Ione, thanked the board for taking such an aggressive stance. “Somebody needs to monitor that thing and go back to square one and get that place cleaned up,” Cassesi said.

Reprinted with permission from the Amador Ledger Dispath