Coit Settles Strawberry Creek Pollution Suit

Friday February 06, 2004

A national cleaning chain settled a lawsuit last week that charged it with polluting Berkeley’s Strawberry Creek. 

Burlingame-based Coit Services agreed to pay $42,000 in civil penalties—half in the form of a fine—and submit to county monitoring. 

The settlement came on the day Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Susan Torrence filed charges against the company for allegedly allowing van operators to discharge hundreds of gallons of soapy wastewater into storm drains at UC Berkeley’s Foothill Housing Complex that feed Strawberry Creek. 

“It’s a pretty serious form of non-point pollution,” Torrence said, noting that laboratory tests performed by the California Department of Fish and Game found the solution “deleterious” to fish. 

The suit specified four times in May 2002 that Coit van drivers were spotted illegally dumping the mixture of soap and dirty water beside the dormitory instead of following standard procedures to pump it into a sanitary sewer or return it to the company’s headquarters. 

UC Berkeley Environmental Specialist Steve Maranzana said he caught the drivers red-handed with their hoses discharging directly into the storm drain. “They tried to drive away just as the DA pulled up,” he said. 

Coit refused to accept responsibility for the discharge. Company Vice President of Operations Veny Pirochta said that while drivers interviewed had no recollection of the dumping, Coit nevertheless opted not to fight the charges. “If it did happen we want to make sure everyone is comfortable that it won’t happen again,” he said. 

UC Berkeley still contracts with Coit to clean dorm carpets and upholstery. 

To comply with the settlement, Coit technicians must keep logs showing how they dispose of wastewater from their 50-gallon van tanks, hire an environmental compliance officer, and submit disposal records to the Alameda County Environmental Health Department. 

Pirochta said the company avoids chemicals that could do serious harm to the creek that is home to fish, insects and plants. “All we use is mild soap,” he said. “Since we clean in homes where little kids play on carpets it has to be the safest possible materials. 

That’s a silly argument, said environmental consultant Julia Lamont. “Unless it was something completely biodegradable, it can build up in organisms and contaminate the whole ecosystem,” she said. 

The university opted not to perform a fish count in the days following the contamination, UC Berkeley Associate Director of Environment, Health and Safety Greg Haet said, so it’s unclear the extent of damage, if any, caused by the contamination. 

Soap discharge into Strawberry Creek is a common occurrence, said Tom Kelly, a member of Berkeley’s Health Commission. From monitoring the creek at Strawberry Canyon Lodge in West Berkeley, he said two-to-three-foot-high suds appear every couple of weeks. “I don’t know how the hell the fish survive,” he said. “Hopefully this will send a message that it’s not OK to pollute the creek.”