Burlingame hopes to deflect sewage lawsuit

Burlingame is fighting back against an environmental group primed to sue the city on claims that it is neglecting millions of gallons of raw sewage spilling into San Francisco Bay each year.

Baykeeper, a San Francisco-based nonprofit group that monitors Bay polluters, identified Burlingame as being one of the biggest sewage spill contributors in the region, spewing out tens of millions of gallons per year, said Program Director Sejal Choksi.

If the city neglects Baykeeper’s allegations, it could be looking at millions of dollars in fines eventually levied by the Environmental Protection Agency.

But Burlingame officials called the accusations “unfair” and “misdirected” after holding a closed session meeting of the City Council Monday to discuss the threat of possible litigation.

The city has already spent $29 million to replace 20 miles of its aging pipeline during the last six years, said Public Works Director Syed Murtuza. The rest of the 100 miles of infrastructure will be replaced as the city spends $3.7 million annually during the next 20 years, he said.

But that is not quick enough and spill rates have not improved during that time, Choksi said. The point of the potential suit, Choksi said, would be to expedite that process; something Burlingame officials think is impossible.

“You can’t improve the system in one daybecause you have over 100 miles of pipelines,” Murtuza said. “You’re not going to tear up the entire city and make it unbearable for residents.”

Furthermore, the city has the following guidelines in place to avoid potential spills, Murtuza said: checks for grease traps at businesses, inspections of pipelines during property sales, burning of tree roots blocking pipes and removal of other blockages found during periodic assessments.

The city is examining the specific allegations as it decides whether to respond within 60 days to avoid a court battle, Murtuza said

Baykeeper won a settlement with the city of Richmond in 2005 over a similar dispute, which resulted in the city adding $20 million of system improvements over the next five years.

If Burlingame loses a court battle, it would face $27,500 in fines for each violation under the Clean Water Act, Choksi said. The group documented 198 spills during the last few years, bringing the city’s total to $5.445 million. The group would prefer that money be invested in repairing the system.

mrosenberg@examiner.com

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