Sewage spill fines for pier owners, construction company

By Kara Fox

Bonanza News Service

The Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board proposed a $700,000 fine last Thursday for the two property owners and the contractor involved in July's sewage spill in Kings Beach.

The spill occurred when a worker with Tahoe City-based Pacific Built Inc. punctured a hole in a buried 14-inch sewer main line that dumped 120,000 gallons of raw sewage onto the beach and into Lake Tahoe.

The Administrative Civil Liability complaint states that the maximum penalty for the incident could be $1.2 million, but that the reasonable penalty is about 60 percent of that amount.

"It was an unfortunate incident. If [Pacific Built] had to pay it, they would go out of business," said Drew Briner, Pacific Built's lawyer. "Pacific Built is a reputable contractor. They have provided good services to the community. It would be a shame for them to have to pay this."

This is the first action taken by any agency regarding the sewage spill, according to Briner.

In addition to Pacific Built, property owners Geoffrey and Christine Davis of Hillsborough, Calif., and Hans and Margaret Coffeng of Santa Cruz are named in the complaint because they hired the contractor to build the pier. Neither the Davis' or Coffengs could be reached for comment last Thursday.

The complaint stated that the North Tahoe Public Utility District has spent $248,000 in the repair, cleanup and remediation of the spill so far and is still incurring expenses.

Steve Rogers, general manager of the NTPUD, said the board is looking at various avenues to recover the costs, including lawsuits.

Placer County, which also helped in the repair and cleanup, will send a bill of its costs to the responsible parties, according to Brian Jones, Placer County's environmental health technician specialist.

The complaint stated that the county has expended a minimum of $74,000, but Jones said the county is still calculating how much it spent on the spill and is determining whether to include the Placer County Sheriff's and fire department's expenses in its estimation.

"It's a big, hairy thing that the county is trying to figure out how much it spent," Jones said. "But we're not planning enforcement action."

Local businesses reported a loss of $80,000 as a result of the spill, according to the complaint. Four public beaches were closed for 10 days because of the spill and the North Tahoe Beach Center was shut down for 16 days.

Julie Regan, communications director for the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, said her agency would not take a separate enforcement action either since Lahontan is the lead investigative agency in the incident.

"We recognize that this is an important issue to the community," Regan said. "The amount demonstrates how important this is.

"It could definitely send a message that this is important to Lake Tahoe."

Anne Harper, president of the board of the League to Save Lake Tahoe, agreed.

"For the offense of releasing 120,000 gallons of raw sewage into Lake Tahoe, the proposed fine appears more than reasonable," Harper said in a statement released by the League. "But the most distressing aspect of the spill is how avoidable it was. The failure to identify the location of a major underground utility is simply inexcusable."

In considering the fine, Lahontan noted that Pacific Built failed to check with Underground Service Alert of Northern California before beginning construction, as required by California state law. Such a check represents "a typical standard of care to locate underground utilities prior to commencing an excavation activity," Lahontan stated in a release. However, easements for the 1969 sewer line were not shown on title documents issued to property owners, according to a NTPUD report released in August.

The complaint also notes that the construction company employees offered their help and equipment to the NTPUD in the hours after the pipe was punctured.

The property owners and the contractor can accept the penalty or face a hearing at the Regional Board's Feb. 8-9 meeting in Kings Beach. If the proposed penalty is imposed, the money will be paid to the Waste Discharge Permit Fund to protect the state's water quality.


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