A fascinating article in Wednesday’s Marin Independent Journal reveals a “second massive sewage spill” at the same Mill Valley treatment plant discussed in the last posting here. The total amount of sewage spilled in one week is now put at 5.2 million gallons.

Because of a bureaucratic snafu, the Jan. 25 spill of 2.45 million gallons into Richardson Bay, an arm of San Francisco Bay, didn’t come to light until after last Thursday’s spill of 2.75 million gallons. As the article by reporter Mark Prado explained, the Sewerage Agency of Southern Marin (which owns the treatment plant) should have immediately notified the Regional Water Quality Control Board after the first spill but instead emailed notification to the regional board’s parent body, the State Water Resources Control Board.

A typo in the email resulted in the date of the spill being given as Jan. 15 instead of 25. Seeing the date, a state employee put the email aside, assuming it dealt with a two-week-old event, the newspaper reported. When the regional board finally learned of the earlier spill, The IJ added, they too were confused by the typo — until yesterday.

20080205__sewage_lead.jpgHealth officials posted signs at beaches and waterfronts along Richardson Bay warning people of the contamination last week after the second spill was disclosed,” The IJ noted and showed such a sign, which was photographed by Jeff Vendsel.

Why the sign looks almost as serious as the one below that health officials posted many months ago next to the Green Bridge! The Marin Environmental Health Department in early January told me this sign should have been taken down in October and would be right away. It’s still there.


So why was this sign along Papermill/Lagunitas Creek posted in the first place? Did millions of gallons of sewage also spill into the creek? Did any sewage spill into the creek?

Not according to North Marin Water District. North Marin monitors water quality in the creek because it draws the drinking water for Point Reyes Station, Olema, and Inverness Park from creekside wells.

As was noted here in Posting 94, North Marin’s tests of Papermill Creek’s water have found only normal amounts of bacteria, including e-coli bacteria, NMWD senior chemist Stacie Goodpaster told me. After a rain, of course, the amount of bacteria in the creek goes up temporarily, Stacie noted, because bacteria get washed into the creek.

However, she added, North Marin’s current testing cannot determine the source of the bacteria; they come from soil, decaying plants, or animal waste. She felt reasonably sure there has not been any sewage leak into the creek, for that would cause there to be at least 50 times as much e-coli in the water.

Marin Environmental Health later confirmed there was no indication of a sewage spill into Papermill Creek.

Supervising health inspector David Smail told me that under state standards for Recreation 1 (swimming) freshwater, the maximum number of enterococcus bacteria per milliliter is 61 in a single day’s sample (104 for saltwater). The last sampling at the Green Bridge, which followed unusually heavy rains in October, resulted in an enterococcus count of 63 (only two over the limit), but under established “protocol,” that requires a sign, David said.

And despite the “avoid contact with water” line in the county sign, Papermill Creek did not test unsafe for boating (Recreation 2). So the “avoid contact” part wasn’t accurate even at the time the sign first went up.

But who’s to care? Runoff from heavy rain carries apparently normal amounts of soil, plant debris, and wildlife waste from forested parkland into Papermill Creek; doesn’t that warrant posting warnings at least as dire as those for a 5.2-million-gallon sewage spill?

Needlessly alarming West Marin’s tourists and local residents doesn’t really matter, does it? It’s just bureaucracy fubar. Or crying wolf.