S.F. gets off the crapper

Deep underground, “The Mole” burrows a hole from the grassy hills by the Great Highway beneath the Presidio. Nothing can stop this round, rock-eating machine, whose tungsten-carbide teeth carve through 80 feet of shale and sandstone a day. The Mole is on a lofty environmental mission to save San Francisco Bay by digging an 18-foot-wide, two-mile sewer tunnel. But the mudcaked miners laying concrete walls behind this rumbling beast must keep their minds on the job at hand. One miner recently lost a finger, though his co-workers say he didn't feel the pain.

The chomping noise from the Mole is so loud it's almost impossible to hear operator Dan Garrett, who stands at the control levers chewing his cigar butt. “My job is to keep it on line. No sense digging a tunnel if you don't put it where you want it,” Garrett says with a smile. “I've been on a lot of these [digs] and I've never missed. If I did, I'd have to start looking for another job.”

The tunnel beneath the Richmond is the final piece of a 20-year Clean Water Program that's the pride and joy of the Department of Public Works. The bureaucrats, engineers and miners who have upgraded and built treatment plants, pump stations and transport structures rarely get the chance to hold their heads above the stream of crap and claim an environmental victory. But in March 1996, the expected completion date for this massive tunnel, these workers will fill their hardhats with champagne — or maybe Budweiser — to celebrate victory over one of the city's messiest pollution problems: When it rains, San Francisco literally shits into the bay and the Pacific Ocean.

“The overflow of raw sewage at Baker Beach is ugly as hell,” says Steve Maiolini, a DPW project manager, from his trailer at the tunnel's muddy entry point at Balboa Avenue and the Great Highway. “There are 40 overflows a year there,” he declares — discharges that flood the popular stretch of sand with coliform bacteria, long con-sidered a health hazard to swimmers and surfers.

But Baker Beach hasn't been the only shithole. For years the dumping occurred at some 37 spots around the circumference of the city nearly every time it rained. The problem stemmed from San Francisco's decision decades ago to save money by building a single sewer system (rather than two separate ones) that merged sewage and rainwater during heavy storms. The limited storage capacity of the sewer system never adequately handled the load, particularly during wet winters; the result is the annual discharge of an estimated 1.7 billion gallons of raw sewage, mixed with polluted storm water and industrial wastes, into surrounding waters.

The Mole may be an unlikely environmental champion. But the 10 million-gallon-capacity tunnel will significantly reduce the coliform dumping. (The overflow pipe will also be moved from Baker Beach to the less-trafficked Land's End.) The new and improved system has already cut down overflows citywide, prompting predictions that the city, finally, will be in compliance with the federal Clean Water Act by 1996. (Just when things seem to be flowing smoothly, an alarming new sewage problem has floated to the top of the environmental agenda, but more on that later.)

Spitting and snarling somewhere beneath the 17th green of the Presidio golf course, the Mole deposits small chunks of rock onto a conveyor belt that moves the material to the “muck cars” of a waiting train. The train then shuttles back and forth to the tunnel mouth at breakneck speeds, requiring passengers to duck their heads under the airshaft at the right moment or risk being knocked out. Other than a computer-aided laser beam that guides the Mole, the miners' job, for the most part, hasn't changed much over the years.

“We're going to be drilling and dynamiting on this job,” explains foreman Curtis Bahten, who's standing at the tunnel's portal. A 39-year-old law school dropout from “the motherlode,” the Gold Country that is, Bahten is known as a hard-driving boss who nonetheless respects his men. “Mining is every bit as difficult as it was when we mined 50 years ago,” he yells over the roar of the nearby crane. “We're still the hardest working men around. This isn't a situation for the meek.”

Miners are a cliquish lot. “The boys,” as Bahten calls them, travel from job to job, state to state, working for about $23 an hour. Many never see the light of day during the week, entering the tunnel before sun-up and going home after the sun's last rays sink into the Pacific. “It's dark to dark,” says the foreman. The seaside jobsite does provide enticing views of winter waves for those working at the portal.

To the untrained eye, contemporary mining seems horribly dangerous, with the Manitowoc crane lifting, swinging and dropping 60,000-pound muck cars and 24,000-pound cement tunnel sections next to the miners. Sitting above the portal, crane operator George Sausedo can't see the workers down below as he maneuvers the deadly loads into their waiting grasp. “It's all done by radio,” stresses Bahten. Somehow the casual-looking, cigarette-smoking miners seem to turn their heads just in time to catch the cargo before it strikes them. “Exactly,” smiles the proud foreman.

If there is a steady hand in this $53 million operation, it's the craneman, Sausedo — a small, agile San Franciscan who likes to tease the burly miners. “You guys all need psychotherapy,” Sausedo taunts over the radio, before clicking it off. “Especially the younger ones. They throw fits. As far as I'm concerned, miners are on the wrong end of the stick.”

In the cab of the Manitowoc, with its 120-foot boom, Sausedo furiously moves four hand levers and three foot peddles. He describes the motion as like being on a StairMaster all day while slugging a punching bag. Speed is of the essence, and after the foreman canned five cranemen who couldn't handle the pace, he declares Sausedo — the son of a crane operator — the best in the business. “Most operators do 20 pickups a day,” Bahten points out. “George does 160.” [page]

Sausedo, a 43-year-old family man, carries a tape recorder with him on dangerous jobs. “It's my black box. It'll let my wife know who screwed up if I get killed, so she can tell the lawyer.”

Tunnel water will flow south to the new Oceanside Treatment Plant, the crown jewel in the city's nationally acclaimed sewer facilities that ring San Francisco like a moat. Hidden in the sand dunes off the Great Highway near the zoo, the $220 million Oceanside plant is being hailed as an environmental wonder.

Superintendent Alexis Halstead came up through the sludge of sewer jobs, getting her ears wet years ago at the city's Southeast Treatment Plant located in Bayview-Hunters Point. “No one plans on working in wastewater, you just fall into it,” she quips. “In the old days, the plant chief would blow a whistle before making announcements. I thought I was in the Navy. The employees were referrals from prison.”

Not anymore. A bank of computers runs most of Oceanside's operations, leaving only a skeleton crew for maintenance. As Halstead walks through the facility's ecology lab, filled with crabs and fish in glass jars, she bristles at the charge that her plant pollutes the ocean. Prior to the opening of Oceanside last year, most wastewater dumped into the ocean received only primary treatment, which settled the solids. But the new facility, which provides secondary treatment (settling solids in combination with biological processes), has increased the removal of wastewater pollutants from 50 percent to 95 percent.

Treated wastewater is dumped through an underground pipe, which extends more than four miles offshore into the Pacific. But don't expect the sea critters living near the mouth of the pipe to complain. Filter feeders like clams and worms have been feasting off particles in the wastewater, and some populations are actually expanding in size.

Oceanside has also helped reduce overflows along the Ocean Beach shoreline from an average of 58 per year to only a handful. During this winter's heavy rains, says Halstead, the storage boxes buried under the Great Highway dumped sewage water on Ocean Beach only twice. In fact, all around the city (except for Baker Beach and Islais Creek near Hunters Point) the upgraded system withstood the wet weather, belching overflows only 15 times, which is below the soon-to-be-imposed 1996 limit of 23. “It would be nice to get to zero,” says Tom Franza, deputy manager of the Bureau of Water Pollution Control, “but as a practical financial matter we have come a long way and we are happy with the results from this wet season.”

But all isn't well with the city's upgraded sewage moat. Experts are sounding the alarm over the next wave of sewer pollution: oils, toxic metals, copper dust from brake pads, leaves, pesticides and garbage that all find their way into storm drains through runoff or intentional dumping. “Half the pollutants going into the bay are from storm drains,” says Will Bruhns, senior engineer at the Regional Water Quality Control Board. “You heard about the recent fish study [which found high levels of contaminants]. We have a lot of chemicals going into the bay that are causing problems. Reducing this urban-life pollution is a big issue for us.”

Since new plants like Oceanside weren't designed to filter out chemicals — an oversight perhaps — pollution experts are attacking the problem at the source by regulating businesses that dump deadly materials and by educating the public. “People complain that we are dumping metals, but the problem is the people who dump stuff like antifreeze down the drain,” grouses Halstead.

Controlling the sources of urban pollution, however, isn't easy. For instance, dentists' offices are the biggest source of high-level mercury pollution in the bay near the Southeast plant. But when the city recently tried to require that offices install treatment systems to catch the mercury-filled spit, dentists objected. “It's still on appeal,” says Bruhns.

Greg Karras, senior scientist at Citizens for a Better Environment, charges that the city's pretreatment program is too lenient on businesses. “Hundreds of businesses dump metals and other toxins in sewers, but the city's program encourages these polluters to dilute before dumping instead of phasing out the chemical dumping,” he says, adding that San Jose's more vigorous program should be a model for San Francisco.

Ironically, the new battle against storm-sewer dumping has brought San Francisco's combined system back into vogue. Most West Coast cities built separate systems that treated sewage but not rainwater. In the East Bay, for example, polluted storm runoff is dumped directly into the Bay, while San Francisco's combined system channels it to treatment plants that catch many of the toxins along with the sewage. “So we've come full circle to the point where the combined system is better,” explains Halstead.

But to those who swim in the bay, it still isn't good enough. Pete Bianucci is a commissioner for the Dolphin Swim Club, which has about 500 members who do offshore laps near Aquatic Park. Bianucci has been swimming in the bay for 35 years and has seen his share of diesel spills, dredging and garbage muck up the waters. “I can taste and smell the sewage,” he says, “it has an odor of its own. We get sick from it. There are times when we all have a cold or throat problems. And there are times when we can't even go in.”

Meanwhile, the Mole grinds on and on, with only one real challenge ahead — will the two ends of the Richmond tunnel meet? After digging a small section at the Presidio, the machine was moved to the Great Highway portal, where it began its laser-guided journey home. If the Mole's a quarter-inch off, no problem; an error of a foot or more means trouble for the engineers. “We won't like to have visitors on that day in case we are off,” chuckles Michael Kobler, a DPW engineer. “But we will hit it dead on. This is what we do for a living.” [page]

Vince Bielski

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