Burlingame may have to pay for alleged sewage spills

Burlingame property owners may ultimately be pinned with a bill for a likely settlement that could reach into the millions of dollars for the city’s alleged spilling of millions of gallons of sewage into San Francisco Bay.

Baykeeper, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that aims to protect the Bay, claims Burlingame’s aging sewer system has caused too much sewage to spew into the Bay since 2002. The organization claimed in its October lawsuit that the city neglected to fix its aging sewer system in a timely fashion.

City Manager Jim Nantellagreed with Baykeeper attorney Daniel Cooper’s assessment that, “It’s no longer a question of whether [the city] will pay — it’s a question of when and how much.” Cooper added that fixing the sewer systems should cost Burlingame “tens of millions of dollars at least.”

The money for the settlement will likely come out of the pockets of city residents who are billed for sewage services, Nantell said.

“Hopefully we can reach an agreement that minimizes the impact on [property owners],” Nantell said.

Neither side would discuss settlement figures because negotiations are ongoing. Nantell said he is optimistic that a settlement will be reached within the next few months. If a settlement is reached, Baykeeper would assign the funds to a third-party organization for local environmental restorations projects, Cooper said.

The environmental watchdog documented 198 spills by Burlingame into the Bay since 2002. The group claims millions of gallons of sewage flowed into the Bay. Nantell said the estimated number of spills was likely accurate, although he said it was deceiving. The “vast majority” of those spills only caused about a half-gallon to a gallon of sewage to go into the Bay, he said.

For each day with a spill, Burlingame faces up to a $27,500 or $32,500 fine under the federal Clean Water Act, said Ken Greenberg, chief of the federal EPA’s Clean Water Act Compliance Office. Depending on negotiations, the city could face up to $5.445 million to $6.435 million in penalties.

The city has already spent $29 million to replace 20 miles of its aging pipeline during the last six years, Public Works Director Syed Murtuza said in late October. 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 had said.

But that 20-year timeframe is not fast enough, said Baykeeper Executive Director Deb Self. Her group wants the city to push forward and spend money to fix the system faster.

mrosenberg@examiner.com

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