Legal fight brewing in Mill Valley over massive 2008 sewage spill

Source: Marin Independent Journal (CA), May 16, 2011
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More than three years after a treatment plant spilled millions of gallons of sewage into Richardson Bay, a collection agency that feeds into the plant wants to hold the city of Mill Valley — the plant’s contract operator — legally and financially responsible.

An attorney for the Richardson Bay Sanitary District, which collects sewage for more than 4,000 households in Strawberry and a portion of Tiburon, sent a letter dated May 4 demanding Mill Valley pay the full cost of a $1.6 million fine and $1 million in engineering and legal fees that resulted from the spills.

“I don’t think they are really going to get their checkbook out,” said the Greenbrae-based attorney, Peter Brekhus. “I think that we probably will have to file a lawsuit.”

The Richardson Bay district is one of six member agencies that make up the Sewerage Agency of Southern Marin, or SASM, a joint powers authority that oversees the Mill Valley treatment plant where the spills occurred. The other members include the city of Mill Valley, the Tamalpais Community Services District and the Almonte, Alto and Homestead Valley sanitary districts.

Since 1979, the city of Mill Valley has provided contract maintenance and operations of the Sycamore Avenue plant, which treats sewage for approximately 15,300 households.

On Jan. 25 and 31, 2008, the plant spilled a total of approximately 3.4 million gallons of raw and partially treated sewage into Richardson Bay, resulting in the fine from the state Regional Water Quality Control Board in addition to enforcement actions by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In its letter, the Richardson Bay district blames the spill on “improper management, staffing and operation of the SASM facility while under the active and complete management and control of the City of Mill Valley.”

In an interview, Richardson Bay district board president Bruce Abbott said his district is acting to protect its ratepayers from unfairly contributing to the cost of the spill.

“The Richardson Bay ratepayers had nothing to do with this spill and there’s no reason they should have to pay for it,” he said.

The fine has been split into installments, which are being paid by SASM into a number of funds for cleanup, abatement, homeowner sewage lateral replacement grants and environmental restoration.

Mill Valley City Manger Jim McCann declined to comment on the Richardson Bay demands, saying he had not received the letter. The letter — an electronic copy of which was provided to the Independent Journal — was addressed to a post office box city employees said is no longer in use.

Jim Jacobs, president of the SASM board and a board member for the Tamalpais Valley Community Services District, said he also had not seen the letter but called the potential lawsuit a “distraction.”

“The SASM agency needs to focus on the future,” he said. “I’m disappointed that their agency is not focusing on the future as well.”

Jacobs said Mill Valley was not solely responsible for the spills, citing leaky pipes in the SASM member agencies’ collection systems as a contributor.

“I don’t believe any of the pipes in the six agencies have been tested perfectly to prove they are water-tight,” he said.

A federal enforcement action filed in 2008 identified problems with all six agencies’ collection systems, including 48 sewage spills that occurred from the Richardson Bay system from December 2004 to February 2008.

The new legal fight comes amid continuing pressure in the wake of the spills for consolidation of the SASM member agencies, each of which have independent boards, staffs and contractors. A 2009 bill sponsored by Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, authorizes the Marin Local Agency Formation Commission, or LAFCO, to force consolidation.

Specific consolidation plans have not materialized.

Jacobs said the latest action by Richardson Bay “gives more reason to LAFCO to suggest that consolidation is necessary.”

“When one group is infighting like this it just suggests you’re not focusing on the future,” he said.

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