In response to a year and a half of sewage spills from the California Men's Colony's aging sewer system, a local agency is asking the state to charge the minimum-security prison a $600,000 fine.
Officials at the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB) sent a letter to the CMC's warden, John Marshall, on May 8, chronicling six of the worst spills and detailing how the prison let them happen.
According to the RWQCB and the state's Office of Emergency Services - which keeps tabs on hazardous-waste spills - about 334,600 gallons of sewage has spilled since February 2004. That includes another 20,000 gallons that spilled on May 2.
The RWQCB estimates that about 70 percent of that total ended up in Chorro Creek - which feeds into the Morro Bay Estuary.
While the board could charge the CMC a $10,000-a-day and $10-a-gallon fine for each overflow - which would add up to a $2.23 million bill for the prison - in its letter, the water board acknowledged that the overflows were not intentional and the CMC was only "moderately" culpable. Because of that, the board opted for a lower fine.
Prison officials will have a chance to respond to the proposed fine at a public hearing on July 8 before state officials make the penalty official.
While water board officials were writing their letter, CMC officials were finishing a portion of a new sewer system. John Kellerman, the prison's correctional plant supervisor, said a new pipeline between the prison and its sewer plant is finished and is operating at full capacity. Which, he said, will address some of the RWQCB's concerns.
But the other half of the new system, a $25 million treatment plant, won't be finished until 2006.
"We're working as hard as we can to complete the new sewer plant," said Shelly Thompson, the prison's spokeswoman. "In the meantime, we're as diligent as we can be in minimizing the overflow problem."
The CMC sewer system stretches from the prison to a treatment plant located behind Cuesta College. At the prison end, problems sometimes start with prisoners.
In October 2004, a large number of inmates were moved to a different section of the prison. Before they left their cells, according the RWQCB's letter, they flushed "contraband material, plastic sheeting, and blankets" down the toilet. The result blockage caused 100,000 gallons of raw sewage to flow into Chorro Creek.
Then there's the problem of rain. According to Matt Thompson, water resource control engineer with the RWQCB, stormwater and raw sewage should be kept separate in a sewer. But because of problems at the prison, rainwater is getting in and overloading the system.
Before the new pipeline was installed, that excess water would cause raw waste to flow out of manhole covers and into Chorro Creek. The creek is not only steelhead habitat, it travels down to Morro Bay where there's shellfish harvesting. The RWQCB's Thompson guessed it was those shellfish that might be the most impacted by the sewage spills.
"They're naturally sensitive to pathogens in the water," he said.
There's also a potential impact to humans that county officials are worried about. Richard Lichtenfels, supervising environmental health specialist for San Luis Obispo County, said the county posts warning signs along the creek after spills occur.
But those postings might not be temporary anymore: Lichtenfels said his office will meet with RWQCB and CMC officials within the next two weeks to discuss installing permanent warning signs along the creek. Â³
Staff Writer Abraham Hyatt can be reached at email@example.com.