Harbor District Slow to Respond to Raw Sewage Reports


By on Wed, January 18, 2012



Improving water quality at Pillar Point Harbor is good for local business that depends on tourism, good for the commercial fishing fleet that prides itself on providing the freshest locally and sustainably caught seafood and good for the environment. A lot could be done to prevent sewage dumping, fuel spills and bilge pumping oil into Pillar Point Harbor.

Recently I met with Tracy Pearson, a retired tugboat captain, regarding his concerns about raw sewage being pumped into Pillar Point Harbor. Mr. Pearson has been a slip holder and vessel owner at Pillar Point Harbor for the past 23 years.

Mr. Pearson has witnessed live-aboards dumping raw sewage into Pillar Point Harbor for some time. Starting in June of last year he reported the problem to harbor employees, administration, and commissioners on numerous occasions. The Harbor District application for berth rental section G requires authorized pumping, pursuant to Section of the SMCHD Ordinance Code. Dumping of sewage into Pillar Point Harbor is not allowed.

Mr. Pearson’s first report was via phone message on June 20, 2011 when he noticed raw sewage drifting by his boat the S/V Sun Star. He did not receive a response to his voicemail message.

On July 21, 2011 Mr. Pearson notified Robert Johnson, then Harbor Master via email about the problem and no action was taken. On August 18, 2011 Mr. Pearson wrote to Peter Grenell, Harbor District Manager and received a reply on August 24, 2011 that said Mr. Grenell would “follow up and take appropriate actions”.

Mr. Pearson has attended two Harbor Commission meetings, September 7, 2011 (meeting minutes) and November 2, 2011 (meeting minutes). During public comment Mr. Pearson voiced concerns about the District’s lack of response to his June 20, 2011 report of raw sewage floating near C dock. He reminded the Commissioners that allowing sewage discharge at Pillar Point Harbor is a violation of the Clean Water Act. Mr. Pearson suggested dye packs as a solution and requested that the District take appropriate action without further delay. He also pointed out that it was urgent that the sewage problem be resolved in advance of crab season opening. Dungeness crab is a species that is sold live from holding tanks that cycle harbor water to keep crab fresh.

In October, November, and December Mr. Pearson received his monthly slip bill in the mail with a flyer about the annual holiday boat decorating event but no notice addressing the sewage problem.

Mr. Pearson filed a written complaint with Cal/EPA, contacted Karissa Anderson at the San Mateo County Resource Conservation District, and talked with Gregory Smith, Supervisor of the Water Protection and Land Use Programs at San Mateo County Environmental Health.

It is my understanding that the San Mateo County Resource Conservation District recently (before Thanksgiving) did some water testing, including DNA testing, at Pillar Point Harbor under boats at ABC docks (the live-aboard docks). Some slip holders are concerned that limited testing on a few random days may not tell the whole story about localized water quality concerns affecting the inner jetty at Pillar Point Harbor.

Mr. Pearson also contacted the San Francisco Water Board. The SF Water Board contacted Peter Grenell, Harbor District Manager, twice recently and a letter from the District was mailed to slip holders on December 29, 2011 regarding upcoming inspections. Pillar Point Harbor patrol started vessel inspections this month that include installing dye packs in the holding tanks and sealing Y-valves to prevent discharge from going overboard.

It took the District five months to respond to Tracy’s original concern about sewage dumping. It would be good to see the District enforcing its own policies, aimed at maintain a healthy harbor, on a regular basis. Hopefully the District will adopt new polices and best practices that are in accordance with other California harbor facilities that have proven track records.

Santa Barbara Marina has a strong water pollution prevention program in place. When a boat arrives at the Santa Barbara Marina the harbor master’s office immediately sends a staff person out to meet the boat and drop dye tablets into the head and they check the results periodically. This simple solution helps a lot.

Ongoing problems with the Pillar Point Harbor pumpout facility have resulted in some frustrated boat owners giving up and dumping sewage. A daily inspection of the pumpout facility would insure that the facility is operational.

The solution to spillage when fueling and bilge pumping oil into the harbor is simple and again Santa Barbara is a great example of its implementation. Santa Barbara Marina notifies and continuously reminds boat owners that the harbor master’s office provides bilge pads at no charge to anyone requesting them. It is my understanding that Pillar Point Harbor also offers free bilge pads in the case of an emergency and the District currently charges a fee for the installation of booms around a leaking vessel. Some Pillar Point Harbor boat owners are unaware of the importance of using bilge pads to soak up oil and are less inclined to request booms in an emergency due to the cost.

Education is an important part of improving water quality. Santa Barbara Marina attendants watch vessels while they are fueling and offer help to prevent fuel spills. They inform vessels about the large fines that are the consequence of spillage. And, they tell boat owners that they are required to report all spills. The result is that the water is clean and there is very little oil or fuel in the harbor. In contrast to Pillar Point where you will find a sheen of oil and fuel on the surface every evening.

Additional concerns include the District’s unwillingness to repair or replace the non-functioning harbor security camera system and management’s refusal to videotape Commission meetings. The lack on concern for safety, security, and accountability points to a significant disconnect between the Harbor Commission and the people the District serves.

Broken security cameras at Pillar Point Harbor have resulted in missed opportunities to reduce crime. In November, a 32-foot fiberglass boat named “Tonita” was sunk when someone turned a hose on inside the cabin and filled the boat with water.  It is suspected that this act of vandalism was a form of retribution against the owner of the vessel, Chris Eatingerred, a rock crab fishermen. Mr. Eatingerred was thought to be fishing Dungeness crab at a time when Dungeness crab fishermen were on strike. This month another commercial fishermen had his truck vandalized in the harbor parking lot. Other reports of crime have been made over the years including a Harbor Patrol employee’s car being stolen while at work. Apparently, security cameras stopped functioning on or before 2005.
Another place working cameras would be beneficial is at Harbor District meetings.  A couple years ago I suggested that Harbor Commission meetings be videotaped. In response to the suggestion Peter Grenell, Harbor District Manager said, “It is in the best interest of the District not to videotape meetings.”  Videotaping meetings, broadcasting meetings on public access television, and archiving meetings on the District’s website are reasonable requests that would provide a transparent process.  One wonders… what are they afraid of?

I urge the District to repair or replace Harbor security cameras and to videotape Commission meetings no later than February 2012.

Five months is too long to wait for the District to respond to public health and safety concerns. A safe and healthy harbor benefits everyone and it’s good for local business.

I’m running for Harbor Commissioner in 2012 because I want to insure that decisions about public resources are made with the community’s best interests at heart. It’s time to restore the people’s voice in local government.

Sabrina Brennan
for San Mateo County Harbor Commissioner 2012