Imagine stepping outside the house to walk the dog, or heading down to the beach to get in some well-spent time swimming or surfing the waves of the Pacific, only having to turn back for one very repulsive reason.

They can be crude, hard to manage and, most of all, very dangerous to one’s health: sewage spills are nothing to be taken lightly. That’s certainly been the case in the past month alone, when in Ventura County, thousands and thousands of gallons of hazardous materials — sewage and chemicals — leaked from a mere handful of spills.

According to data from the Ventura County Environmental Health Department, there were 600 gallons of seepage near Hobson Beach in Ventura on Nov. 23. On Dec. 14, a spill in Oxnard resulted in the cleanup of 500 gallons of sewage on Hemlock Street. A Ventura beach was hit again, when 50 gallons of sewage was discharged near Rincon, a malfunction of a lift station line.

Also in December, there were leaks across the county of chlorinated effluent — toxic water whose disinfectant chlorine hasn’t been drained, accounting for more than 60,000 gallons in Camarillo on Dec. 20, and two other monumental spills of the same substance in Santa Paula.

Are they the anomalies of the county’s plumbing, or just regular occurrences that need maintenance? Essentially, the answer could be yes to both.

Sandy Warren, a public affairs officer for the Ventura Regional Sanitation District, explained that in the cases of both beach spills, which his department managed, the polyethylene piping was formerly utilized for offshore oil production, but later modified for sewage flow. That means not only are the lines old and prone to failure, but they present a task in monitoring since they’re underground.

“What’s more common these days is failure of infrastructure,” Warren said. “When they’re out of sight, it’s difficult, if not impossible, over time to inspect them. Like parts on a car, they wear out. When anything is under pressure or constant stress like a force main, it’s susceptible to breakage, especially if it’s been in the ground for a number of years.”

“In Rincon, the line is in a steel sleeve” more than 30 years old, says Satya Karra, operations manager for the county’s water and sanitation department. “At that time, it was a prudent way to go. That was the host pipe.”

It’s a familiar notion for the workers at Oxnard’s wastewater maintenance plant, who cleaned up last month’s 500-gallon spill, the result of a valve malfunction. A good portion of Oxnard’s pipelines — 400 miles worth in all — show their age in the materials they’re constructed from; according to the plant’s manager, many are made not from steel, but fragile terra cotta.

“We do have an aging collection system. Some of them are upwards of 50 years old,” said Jeff Miller. “If the integrity of the pipe is in good shape, we’ll leave it alone and just make sure it’s clean.”

Miller’s and Warren’s departments routinely perform assessments of their respective infrastructures, where closed-circuit cameras are often used, fed underground into a pipe to inspect for cracks or potential breaks that could lead to sewage spills.

The process works well for standard gravity-fed sewer mains.

“But when it’s a pressurized main, running a camera down isn’t feasible,” says Warren.

Of course, there are times when no amount of monitoring can prevent the forces of nature that may harm a pipeline, whether old or new. Both Santa Paula effluent spills last month — 22,467 gallons, then another 127,252 gallons lost, according to county data — were the result of pipes freezing and breaking.

The noteworthy element: The spills happened two days apart … and in the same exact location, necessitating repeated repairs of the same pipe.

“It was that cold period,” said Mike Byrne, an environmental health specialist with the county. “They had a couple of lines that froze and cracked and caused a problem with their dechlorination system.”

Considering its precarious and unpredictable nature, it can get costly to replace, length by length, the county’s aging infrastructure. Karra, of county water and sanitation, estimates it would cost about $3 million of county funds to replace 10 miles of pipeline. No numbers were immediately available regarding the Rincon or Hobson repairs.

Karra commented on President-elect Barack Obama’s proposed infrastructure plan, which could serve to aid public works and other service departments in replacing and upgrading their equipment — in this case, sewage pipelines — so the likelihood of future spills could be lessened.

“Just based on the climate we are in, everybody would be vying for it. Everybody’s looking for creative ways of generating income,” he said. “We might see, but it’s too early to tell.”

For the time being, the environmental health department issues warnings each time a major incident like a spill or a storm event occurs, at which point swimmers and surfers are advised to stay out of the water.

“Generally,” Byrne said, “we advise the public to avoid contact with those areas for at least 72 hours.”

According to Byrne, exposure to contaminants can lead to serious sickness, so people are warned to be careful.

“Common health effects would be gastrointestinal diseases, similar to food-borne illness-like symptoms,” he said.  

 

paul@vcreporter.com