S.F. is special, even when it comes to raw sewage

Remember that epic rainstorm in mid-October? In addition to filling the Bay Area's parched reservoirs, the storm had a fun side effect: It sent thousands of gallons of raw sewage (mostly stormwater runoff tainted with poop and piss) spewing into the bay.

That's because the heavy rainfall taxed the region's aging sewer systems, which couldn't handle the extra runoff. San Mateo spilled 87,000 gallons of untreated sewage into streets and creeks, 55,000 gallons of which drained straight into the bay. San Carlos added roughly 35,000 gallons to the shit fest, and Millbrae reported another 4,800 for the same storm.

Although the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Board hasn't punished anyone for the latest spills, it has been cracking down on municipalities that broke the requirements of their wastewater permits in storms past.

The board just slapped a $2.3 million fine on the city of Pacifica for spilling nearly 7 million gallons of partially treated sewage and 100,000 gallons of raw sewage onto nearby beaches and wetlands during storms in 2008. San Mateo recently paid $950,000 in fines for 87 spills that totaled more than 2.5 million gallons of raw sewage between 2004 and 2008. “The problem itself is widespread in the Bay Area,” board spokeswoman Dyan Whyte said.

San Francisco is one of a few Bay Area cities that have never been fined for waste overflows. But that doesn't mean the city isn't overflowing. According to Public Utilities Commission spokesman Tyrone Jue, unknown quantities of San Francisco's untreated sewage overflow into the bay roughly 10 times per year. (He says about 94 percent is stormwater runoff; the remainder is human waste.)

So why does San Francisco go unpunished? Jue says the city has a caveat in its permit that allows for overflows.

That's because San Francisco is one of 772 cities in the country (and one of two in the state) with a unique, “combined” sewer system built to treat large volumes of wastewater plus stormwater runoff. But even this more sophisticated system isn't perfect, which is why overflows still happen during big storms. The city hasn't been able to quantify the exact volume at each storm. Jue says they're working on it.

Treasure Island still has a separate system, which is why a pipe rupture there a few weeks back sent 27,000 gallons of untreated sewage straight into the bay. Pacifica's wastewater plant manager, Dave Gromm, says that maybe the spill will finally land San Francisco its very first sewage overflow fine.

Sorry, Dave: It turns out the Treasure Island rupture is under the Navy's jurisdiction. We guess San Francisco scooted its way out of yet another shitstorm.

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