What began as a minor “sewage leak” Thursday blossomed into a major test of the cooperative ability of island stakeholders to avert an economic disaster at the very start of the busy tourist season.
Before it was over, fresh and saltwater service to the entire city was shut down while employees battled to find a solution to a major value replacement that threatened economic interruption and public health to island residents.
Mayor Anni Marshall said while she would not classify the incident a disaster, it was a severe test of the island’s ability to respond to a major emergency. The mayor admitted those on the front line of the incident were the ones under the most pressure; she was very gratified with the overall result.
“It was amazing,” she said after the incident, “just amazing.” Marshall said all the major stakeholders, Island Company, Conservancy, hospital, public health agencies, Fire Department, Sheriff’s Department, county officials, Avalon School, the Chamber and others banded together to avert a much bigger problem as the situation got worse.
Public Works Director Bob Greenlaw said he got a call at 11:30 a.m. Thursday morning notifying him of a “small sewer leak” at the Pebbly Beach lift station. Greenlaw immediately called out public works personnel, activated a backup generator and rushed to the site. The leak was worse than he thought.
Fire Chief Mike Krug said he was called about noon and responded to the site with equipment. Krug said he did “what he could” to help as city crews fought the leak and tried to ascertain what was causing it and how to fix it.
Krug was named incident commander and began assisting the city by staging equipment, notifying officials and other administrative tasks, “taking the pressure off city officials trying to deal with the actual emergency.”
Greenlaw ordered as much equipment as he could find, including asking both the Island Company and the Catalina Island Conservancy for construction type equipment to try and keep the sewage from reaching the ocean.
By mid-afternoon, leaking sewage began entering some businesses in the area. Greenlaw and city engineers fought to contain the leak, isolate it and “worked through the night to try and determined what had been damaged,” he told the city council on Tuesday.
Work of the leaking sewage reached Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn, who called Mayor Marshall with an offer of county resources, if needed.
Meanwhile, it was more bad news for city crews. Through the night, with sewage still leaking, now dipping into the Pacific, a plan to bypass the leak was deemed to be unfeasible, according to Krug.
The incident commander said he was told Friday morning to prepare the public for a complete shutdown of the city’s sewer system. Public works officials had tried twice to by-pass the lift station without shutting down the system, but it was finally determined at 7 a.m. Friday morning that such a fix was not possible.
City officials said they had a good idea of what had failed because a valve at the lift station was to be replaced very soon. Meanwhile, Krug said crews were busy building sandbag levees and trying to keep as much bubbling sewage as possible away from the ocean, but health officials ordered the beaches closed as a precaution.
The city’s Code Red system was activated. Residents and businesses were told to prepare for a complete shutdown of fresh water for drinking and saltwater for flushing.
More resources were necessary. School was already in session and officials decided that they could remain there, but water had to be brought in. Island resources were marshaled to begin delivering bottling water to Avalon school and to areas in town where it could be distributed.
In addition, Krug said since the sewer system had to be completely shut down, portable toilets had to be delivered to various points around the city.
Restaurants began posting signs letting tourists know they were either “temporarily closed” or “closed till further notice.”
Ferries and other transit carriers did what they could to help. City workers were truly the ones “in the trenches,” literally digging through waste to isolate the problem.
Krug said he stayed almost in constant touch with City Manager Denise Radde, who was giving him instructions on which state and federal agencies were to be notified, etc.
County public health officials began testing the waters off Catalina immediately.
Greenlaw and the extensive team now gathered devised a plan to “find a competent pipe” to tie the new bypass into as workers replaced the faulty valve. Work went on throughout the day as Avalon struggled to accommodate the total shutdown.
Marshall said while the situation was very serious, islanders are somewhat accustomed to disruptions in services. “It’s an island,” she said.
The situation began to turn around for the city public works department Friday afternoon as massive trenches, 12-feet deep, finally connected the workers with the system at the locations needing repair. The shutdown of the system allowed them to access dry locations to make the repairs and by 8 p.m. Friday, officials said testing was complete and the system was ordered to be turned back on.
Avalon, which has faced major emergencies before, had escaped more serious consequences from this leak.
Krug said the city is a member of PARSAC (Public Agency Risk Sharing Authority of California). They were notified and immediately sent clean-up crews to the island, transported by special ferry trips. Wearing special suits and using specific equipment, they immediately began to work on the island, inspecting all of the businesses affected, cleaning up the area around the Pebbly Beach lift station, checking the beaches and generally preparing Avalon to resume its normal activity. City Council members praised public works officials on Tuesday, and, like Krug, said they will at a later date thank the guys who were on the front lines doing the truly “dirty” work that needed to be done.
Greenlaw said Tuesday the fix is somewhat temporary and that he is working to install “redundancy” in the system so that future leaks like the one that occurred Thursday can potentially be avoided. Beaches have been reopened and all service restored throughout the city.