New Sewer Connection Ban Proposed in Richmond

By Richard Brenneman
Friday April 14, 2006

Tom Butt thinks he’s found a way to get quick action to start fixing Richmond’s sorely overtaxed sewer system—shut down new connections till the job is done. 

The outspoken city councilmember says he’ll be introducing a resolution calling on the city to do just that when the body meets Tuesday night. 

Fighting a lawsuit by Baykeeper and the West County Toxics Coalition and facing enforcement orders from state regulators, the city’s ailing sewer system is literally under siege, Butt said. 

San Francisco Baykeeper is part of the International Waterkeeper Alliance, an organization based in New York and headed by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. The West County Toxics Coalition is based in Richmond and chaired by Dr. Henry Clark. 

“The city has been dragging its feet, and it’s an indisputable fact that the system can’t handle flows during certain storms,” he said. 

The major culprit is a system of thousands of aging and ailing lateral lines—the lines that take wastewater from buildings on private and public property to the main sewer lines that run under the city streets. 

The laterals, many of them made from leaking clay pipes, take in rainwater from storms which then burdens the sewer lines. 

“During dry weather, the typical flow is five to eight million gallons a day,” Butt said. “The system has a capacity of 20 million gallons. But during wet weather, the flow can reach 40 to 50 million gallons.” 

The overtaxed system then produces backups that send raw sewage flowing backwards into homes and basements. 

In the 2005-2006 fiscal year, the city has paid out more than $1 million in backup damage claims, Butt said. 

“We need a laterals ordinance,” said Butt, “and it’s my understanding an ordinance has been drafted and left to gather dust in the city attorney’s office.” 

Such a law would require property owners to have their lateral lines inspected and repaired before they could sell their homes and businesses. 

Two of the sewage districts that serve the city—Stege and West County—have already adopted a laterals ordinance, but the city hasn’t acted to put a law in place for the Richmond system itself, which serves about 60 percent of the community, Butt said. 

Butt said the city did pass one long-delayed FOG ordinance in at the end of January. FOG stands for fats, oils and grease—which often play key roles in creating sewer system problems. 

The new ordinance allow inspection of restaurants that generate that fats and implements a system for enforcing compliance. 

One of the factors behind Butt’s move is the lawsuit filed Jan. 26 by Baykeeper and the West County Toxics Coalition which charges that the city is in violation of the Clean Water Act. 

Baykeeper Sejal Choksi said the suit was filed in part because Richmond has one of the Bay Area’s highest rates of sewage spills and was failing to report them as required by law. 

“That, coupled with the fact that city has so many other pollution, social and economic problems, was the reason we filed,” Choksi said. “We really thought the situation needed to be remedied as soon as possible.” 

In addition to forcing repairs of the lateral lines, Baykeeper also wants the city to establish a funding program to help homeowners too poor to afford the repairs.  

“The city also needs to fix the collection system by maintaining and repairing the main sewer lines, where clogs have contributed to a majority of the spills,” she said. 

Butt acknowledged that the main lines need repair, citing a report by Veolia—the private contractor the city has hired to run the system—saying that 75 percent of the spills could be eliminated by replacing the main lines along San Pablo Avenue from I-80 to Bissell Avenue and Macdonald Avenue from San Pablo to 33rd Street. That work is planned but has not commenced, he said. 

The city takes the suit seriously, and last week the council voted to allot $100,000 for legal fees to Sacramento law firm Downey Brand to defend them in the action. 

“Without the suit, Richmond probably wouldn’t have moved at all,” Butt said, attributing passage of the FOG regulation to the litigation. 

The city is also under pressure from the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, which issued a notice of violation to the city on March 15 charging the city with failure to keep adequate records of spills and other incidents. 

Butt said he has introduced the moratorium to force hand of a city caught between conflicting pressures. 

On the one hand is an ancient and clearly inadequate sewer system, while on the other hand is a cash-starved city hungry for the fees and taxes that come with construction of new homes and businesses. 

Butt singled out for criticism the environmental impact reports generated for projects served by the main Richmond district, noting that the reports for two Toll Brothers projects—Marina Bay West Shore and Point Richmond Shores—either ignore sewer capacity (the former) or declare it satisfactory (the latter). 

The councilmember acknowledges that sewer fees are going to have to rise to meet current regulations, and says even stiffer regulations likely in the near future could force rates still higher. 

While Butt said Veolia is doing an excellent job of running the city’s system after decades of poor management by city workers, Choksi said she is alarmed at the already high rates being charged in one of the Bay Area’s poorest cities..