As a broken sewage line continues to spew out up to 180 million gallons a day of partly treated waste, crews repairing the rupture in the sewage outfall pipe still hope to finish their work by the April 4 deadline, city officials said Tuesday.
The crisis enters its 46th day today, with bacterial counts remaining high at the tip of Point Loma, at the site of the E. W. Blom Wastewater Treatment Plant and near Sunset Cliffs Park. Counts taken Monday were 16 times the legal limit at the tip of Point Loma.
County health officials said Tuesday that a quarantine remains in effect at the international border and from the tip of Point Loma north to Narragansett Avenue in Ocean Beach.
The binational pump station, which diverts 12 million gallons a day of raw sewage from Tijuana, is expected to resume operation today after being shut down for repairs in early March.
Kurt Kidman, a spokesman for the city's water utilities department, said Tuesday that five of 18 new sections of outfall pipe have been put in place at a depth of 35 feet, 3,150 feet from the cliffs of Point Loma, where the rupture was first detected Feb. 2.
A team of investigators from the Menlo Park-based Failure Analysis Associates continues to probe the area of the spill and a second area about a mile offshore where another, smaller break was discovered. In that second spot, repair crews have completed laying new pipe.
Pipe uncovered at that location revealed deep gouges, leading to suspicion that an anchor being dragged by a passing ship might have damaged the outfall in both spots. Other theories involve external forces, such as wave action, or human error at the plant itself.
The independent inquiry, undertaken by the same firm that investigated the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger and the collapse of a hotel walkway in Kansas City, is expected to be completed in May.
Deputy City Manager Roger Frauenfelder said Tuesday that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has approved the city's plan of outfall repair, with several amendments, which the agency noted in a recent letter:
* Until the pipe is repaired, the EPA has ordered the city to conduct twice-daily inspections of "all places of public access to the shoreline of the Pacific Ocean, from the foot of Ladera Street north to the mouth of the San Diego River."
The EPA told the city to "document all human activity observed both in the water and on the beach to the line of higher high tide" and report its findings weekly to the EPA.
* The agency ordered weekly surveys of all "surfing equipment shops, dive shops, harbor master offices, harbor rental locker areas, boat ramp areas, marinas" to check on whether people are going into the water in places where the city has previously posted contamination warning signs.
* The city is required to file a schedule of repair for the Point Loma outfall and submit weekly reports on the status of those repairs to the EPA and the Regional Water Quality Control Board.
The completion date of April 4 "may not be altered," the letter states, unless unforeseen circumstances, such as a winter storm expected to reach San Diego this weekend, warrant an extension.
Kidman, the water utilities spokesman, said that, despite high ocean swells in recent days, crews have been able "to prepare the ocean bed for pipe."
Frauenfelder, the deputy city manager, said the EPA had also ordered the city to prepare an emergency plan for disinfecting its effluent with chlorine and be able to institute the plan on 24-hour notice.
Frauenfelder said the agency's interest in monitoring the activities of surfers and divers was to make sure that members of the general public "were paying attention to the quarantine." If not, an order of disinfection remained a distinct possibility, Frauenfelder said.
"Disinfection is extremely controversial," Frauenfelder said. "There's a large segment of the scientific community that thinks disinfection does more harm than good, given the delicate ecosystem in the area of the discharge."
Frauenfelder said the city's plan is to disinfect the effluent with sodium hypochlorite--thought to be less toxic than chlorine--at a pump station near Lindbergh Field and then "dechlorinate" at the treatment plant.
He said the city remains opposed to disinfection, not only for ecological reasons but also for the cost--an estimated $140,000 to $200,000 a week. He said disinfection makes it far more difficult to take bacterial readings and monitor where the effluent is flowing.
Although the EPA made no mention of chlorination in its most recent letter to the city, Frauenfelder said the threat of having a disinfection order imposed is "always there" and remains in the hands of EPA administrators.
The Spill at a Glance
Amount: Daily, an estimated 180 million gallons of partly treated sewage.
Cumulative: As of Tuesday, in excess of 8.1 billion gallons.
Tijuana spill: A pumping station that diverts Tijuana sewage to the Point Loma treatment plant is expected to be turned back today, after being shut down since early March. The station can handle only 12 million gallons a day of raw sewage from Tijuana, and when mixed with contaminated rain runoff, the overflow tends to create toxic bacterial levels from the border to Coronado. Despite the pump station's shutdown, dry weather has kept counts in the South Bay at low levels in recent days.
Coastline closed: In the South Bay, only the coastline at the border itself remains closed. Closures related to the Point Loma spill extend from the tip of Point Loma north to Narragansett Avenue in Ocean Beach, just south of the Ocean Beach Pier. Small stretches of Mission Bay also remain closed.
Status of repairs: A deadline of April 4 for completion of repairs has been set. Despite several rain delays, city officials are hopeful of sticking to the deadline. The independent forensic firm of Failure Analysis Associates, which investigated the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger and the collapse of the Hyatt Regency hotel walkway in Kansas City, hopes to announce its findings by mid-May.
Pipeline repair cost estimate: $10.8 million.