Beneath the angular gaze of the sleek, glass and concrete offices that crown the hills of Sorrento Valley, within a short distance of the freeway sign that features a larger-than-life mug of home builder Corky McMillan wearing a hard hat, there is trouble. Big trouble.
It is guarded by a chain-link fence and buried by an enormous concrete slab. Reaching 30 feet into the earth, it is a large chamber that echoes with the deafening whir of 12 huge motors driving 12 large pumps.
Pump Station 64.
The third-largest pumping station in the City of San Diego's waste-water system, it has what one pollution official described as an "abysmal" record of breaking down and producing since 1979 a total of 58 backwashes of raw sewage--a collection of paper, large objects, and industrial and human wastes--into the Los Penasquitos Creek, Los Penasquitos Lagoon and, ultimately, the Pacific Ocean.
Now, Station 64 has become the unlikely rallying point for a confrontation between the forces of growth in San Diego's swelling northern communities and the mandate to protect public health and the environment.
At stake are thousands of construction jobs generating an estimated $1.6 billion for the local economy. At stake also, however, are beaches and coastal waters free of sewage carrying parasites and diseases such as infectious hepatitis.
Citing a threat to public health, Councilwoman Abbe Wolfsheimer says she will call on her colleagues today to consider some kind of moratorium to halt the construction of homes and businesses that would use the problem-plagued station.
"I don't want any more hookups to Pump Station 64," Wolfsheimer said in a recent interview. "I mean, I'm boiling. It's gurgling and I'm boiling."
To initiate discussion about a building ban, Wolfsheimer said she will ask council members to deny a request by Lomas Santa Fe, Inc. to form a sewer assessment district to service its proposed 60-acre, 295-unit development in the San Dieguito River Valley near Via de la Valle and I-5.
The valley, like much of Station 64's service area, lies within Wolfsheimer's district. The assessment district would allow the city to charge Lomas and surrounding landowners $2 million for the construction of the new sewer system, which would contain about 12,000 feet in pipe and a small pump station of its own.
But Wolfsheimer said she is worried because the new system--estimated at completion to carry up to 196,000 gallons of sewage a day--would hook up to Station 64.
Lomas attorneys, city engineers and water utilities department administrators maintain that Station 64 can handle the added flow. It has been a frustrating curse of miscues and mechanical failures--not the fundamental lack of capacity--that has afflicted the Sorrento Valley station, they say.
Wolfsheimer's call for a moratorium comes one week after the state Regional Water Quality Control Board considered imposing a building ban of its own in the Station 64 service area, which covers 100 square miles of San Diego's fastest growing neighborhoods and suburbs.
Board staff members urged the ban but building industry representatives argued vigorously against it. They predicted the loss of an annual $1.6 billion to the local economy and promised board members they would put pressure on local city officials to solve the problems at Station 64.
While the board decided not to impose the ban, it approved a "cease and desist" order against any further spills and instructed city water administrators to report back at its next meeting in July with an emergency plan to upgrade the pump station. Also at the July meeting the board will decide whether to fine the city some $450,000 for past spills.
Until then, the city's water utilities department is holding its collective breath like an audience at an Alfred Hitchcock thriller.
Will Station 64 spill again?
"There's no question in my mind, with all the attention, that any spill for any reason, no matter how small or how big, is going to make us look terrible," said Armand V. Campillo, the department's director.
Today, Pump Station 64 seems very much out of place along Roselle Street, close to the spot where Interstate 5 and 805 meet in Sorrento Valley.
Perched on nearby hills and down the street are the latest generation of office buildings, gleaming with reflectorized glass and draped in signs about the availability of space for rent. Built as part of the valley's development boom, the new buildings also symbolize the growth in San Diego that has helped to create problems at Station 64.
When it was put into operation in 1972, the pump station served a decidedly more rural area.
Its task was to conquer the topography in the valley by collecting sewage in a 33,000-gallon holding tank, then pump it up some 300 feet over a hill, at which point it continues via pipeline to the city's Point Loma waste-water treatment plant.
At its peak, Station 64 could pump 14,500 gallons of sewage a minute--or 20.9 million gallons a day--over the hill.
The task was generally easier between April through October, San Diego's dry season. Heavier loads would flow into the station during the wet months, as rain fed into the sewer system.
At first, the task was no problem for the station's eight pumps, located in the large, two-story underground chamber.
Motors driving the pumps were installed on the chamber's top floor, which is painted military gray and is accessible by a steep concrete staircase. Looking like a set of old-fashioned washing machines, the General Electric motors--four of them 200-horsepower and four of them 400-horsepower--worked in pairs.
When the level of sewage in the holding tank would begin to rise, a sensor sent a signal to a computer panel on the chamber wall. The computer then turned on a set of motors, which would whir in ear-splitting unison.
The motors turned drive shafts that dropped through the floor and led to cylindrical pumps embedded on the chamber bottom. So-called "impellors" inside the pump cylinders used centrifugal force to push the waste water up into large pipes, painted firehouse red, and eventually over the nearby hill.
It all worked fine. Until San Diego began to balloon.
Scripps Ranch. Mira Mesa. Rancho Penasquitos. Sorrento Valley. North City West. The cities of Poway and Del Mar. All within Station 64's service area, they began to swell with new houses and office building and industrial parks.
That meant more toilets, more drains, more dishwashers. The pumps at Station 64 had more than they could handle.
"Our growth problem accelerated so much that it overwhelmed the pump station itself," said William Stanley, a senior water utilities supervisor in charge of the city's 68 pump stations.
Stanley said the Sorrento Valley facility was built to accommodate what was thought to be a less-intense growth pattern. "Then, all of a sudden, we have it coming in from all the areas . . . . It just accelerated too much," he said.
Calculations by the state water quality staff support that observation. Their estimates indicate the station was overworked between 1981 and 1984, taking in up to 10 million gallons a day more in the rainy season than it was designed to handle.
Something had to give. It did, and the evidence showed up in the water.
On July 5, 1979, the pumps broke and the station was automatically shut down. Some 300,000 gallons of raw sewage flowed into Los Penasquitos Lagoon. County health officials had to declare the waters off-limits, state records show.
During three days in February 1980, the station was overwhelmed with heavy rain flow and two pumps went out of service. The result: 31.1 million gallons of raw sewage was spilled into the lagoon and the ocean, forcing another quarantine.
In all, Station 64 broke down 14 times in 1980, spewing more than 42 million gallons of raw sewage into the lagoon and ocean. The station spilled as much as 6.6 million gallons into the coastal waters in 1983 and as little as 156,000 gallons in 1984.
Reasons given by the city for the spills ranged from electrical shorts and debris caught in the pumps to "inadequate capacity to handle sewage flows," according to a list compiled by water quality control board staff members.
The plague of spills prompted the department to install four additional 500-horsepower pumps in 1985 to push sewage with more force through pipes and over the hill, Campillo said.
The extra pumping power boosted Station 64's capacity to 38.5 million gallons a day--enough to handle the anticipated growth in the next several years, he said.
Yet the problems have continued.
Ironically, the station spilled at least 2.4 million gallons in 1985, in part because it was closed down for the installation of the new pumps. And so far this year, it has created a 6.4-million-gallon backwash of sewage because the new 500-horsepower pumps have malfunctioned. Two large spills in April prompted county health officials to close the lagoon once again.
"As far as its track record, it's totally abysmal," said David Barker, senior engineer with the regional Water Quality Control Board. "There is no parallel to Pump Station 64 in this region except, perhaps, the sewage overflows that come into the United States from Mexico.
"It is considered a major pollution problem by the board," said Barker.
Barker, who gave the staff report urging the board to impose the building moratorium, said the spills have been caused by "intent or negligence" by the city. He said the city has failed to install a backup power source for the station.
And he added that his calculations show that even with the four new 500-horsepower pumps, Station 64 still may not have enough capacity to accommodate the sewage in the wet months.
Meanwhile, Gary Stephany, chief of environmental health protection for the county, said spills from Station 64 have not caused any epidemics or made anyone sick.
"But I think we've been lucky," he added. "I personally, working for the public health department, believe in prevention. I would like to prevent it. I don't want to run out of luck.
"Common sense tells me I have to ask myself, 'If something is designed properly, why does it fail 58 times in 81 months?' " added Stephany.
At the very least, spills from Station 64 have meant "you get bad odors from Interstate 5 all the way to the ocean," said Jessie LaGrange, a Torrey Pines resident with a house located near the lagoon.
"We're out of patience, to say the least," she said. "It's been years they've had to install the right kind of pumping station.
"Political decisions are determining the health of an entire community," LaGrange said. "Engineering problems are being solved politically. It probably costs a lot of money and it slows development if they think their sewer is not going to work."
Not so, says Campillo.
"It would be a bum excuse for me to use politics for the reason for any of our dilemma," said the water department director. "It just isn't true."
Openly on the defensive because of the problems at Station 64, Campillo and his subordinates say they are working hard to make amends for the sewage spills.
Their plans include replacing four of the smaller pumps with new 500-horsepower models. The changeover originally was scheduled for next year, but it probably will be hurried along by the water quality board's emergency mandate.
The city water officials also say they are proceeding with plans to build a second, $6.5 million "force main" to the station, which would expand its ability to handle added sewage from growth.
In addition, they are stockpiling pump parts at Station 64 and have assigned water employees, who used to be on duty there five days a week, to 24-hour duty.
"It's unfortunate if Pump Station 64 becomes a central issue on growth," said Campillo. "In my opinion, you have a mechanical item that needs mechanical remedies and it would be unfortunate if it became a central issue on growth. We have said consistently that the pump station is at adequate capacity to accommodate growth."
But Wolfsheimer, for one, says she doesn't believe it.
The first-term council member from the First District, which is home to developments like North City West, said she is tired of hearing the excuses about the sewage spills.
"I don't believe the excuses anymore," she said. "I don't think it is (mechanical problems with) the pumps, per se. I think it is the capacity."
That belief, she said, was made stronger last Wednesday. A member of a council committee, Wolfsheimer asked that the question of the Via de la Valle sewer assessment district, proposed by Lomas Santa Fe, be moved to full council today for discussion as a "health" issue. Wolfsheimer made her motion as Torrey Pines residents complained about the sewage spills into the lagoon and ocean.
Then, a few hours after the hearing, Wolfsheimer's office received notice that the county health department had just quarantined 300 yards of the Torrey Pines beach. Health officials closed the beach because lingering sewage had been released into the ocean from the lagoon. The beach remained closed Sunday.
Wolfsheimer said she will ask her colleagues to "ban" the sewer assessment district as a movement of sorts to cut off further hookups to the errant station.
"I didn't call for a moratorium yet, but I don't feel that we can continue any more building permits until we have . . . a rectification of this problem," she said. "What it is saying is we've got to have some kind of a moratorium.
"It's nice to have a beautiful bay, a beautiful ocean to swim in. It's nice not to have sewage in it. It's nice to protect our wildlife. I'm for all of those things," said Wolfsheimer. "But A-number 1, you cannot have a cholera epidemic. You can't have the diseases that go with sewage spills . . . That's not for us."
However, those representing the development industry say a moratorium is the wrong approach.
"If you've got a five-passenger car and the engine needs a tune up, you don't say the car is a two-passenger car. You tune up the engine," said Mike Madigan, senior vice president of Pardee Construction Co. and chairman of the Greater San Diego Chamber of Commerce. Madigan's company is building at North City West and Sabre Springs, two large developments that feed into the Sorrento Valley pump.
And Paul Robinson, lobbyist for Lomas Santa Fe, has urged the council to disregard consideration of Station 64 during today's discussion.
In material he provided to the council Friday, Robinson and an associate say the company already has spent $6 million on its San Dieguito project, and that some concrete building pads already have been poured. They also say the project would be an "insignificant" addition to Station 64.
Besides, the attorneys say, the question of whether the Via de la Valle sewer system should be built already was resolved by the City Council itself when it approved a special agreement with Lomas Santa Fe last November.
In the agreement, the council promised that if attempts to form the assessment district failed, the company could go ahead on its own and build the sewer system anyway.
The council made sure that, either way, Station 64 would be getting more business.