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Sewer main collapse destroys Muwekma Ohlone Park, Islais Creek near Hunter's Point
San Francisco Muni Light Rail construction breaks a sewage main which normally delivers eighty million gallon per day of secondary effluent to the Bay. A disasterous mess results: The park floods, a sinkhole appears and gobbles trees and backhoes, sewage pours into the channel, the community is devastated, and some serious questions are exposed regarding development in the Southeast quadrant of our city.
Construction crews for San Francisco PUC have been working for months on installing "duct banks" under Islais Creek to bring power, communication, and data cables to the north side of the creek east of Third Street. as part of the preparation for the future Muni Third Street light rail project. The Muni maintenance yard is being built near Pier 80, between 25th and Cesar Chavez east of Illinois. For some reason the Hunter's Point Power Plant is the source of electricity. As construction worked northward, on Sunday or Monday, inside the Muwekma Ohlone Sanctuary park Muni subcontractors drilled crosswise under a 5 or 6 ft. sewer main that heads toward the Bay to place a black tube which will hold the lines. Then they went home.
On Monday or Tuesday, a local resident saw spurts of muck shooting out of the earth leaving volcano-like one or two foot mounds of earth over the area. Neighbors called in reports. Following the complaints, emergency repair crews arrived and have been working day and night since Tuesday. The PUC, DPW, Water Dept, Port of San Francisco, Sewage Department, SF Muni, welders, laborers, consultants, insurance reps, and several permits officers came as well. The sluice gate on the Bay was closed to prevent backflow. They shut off the sewage pump and the flow which normally empties underwater several hundred yards out into the Bay where it is diffused and mixed with bay water was diverted to another line that outflows the eighty million gallons of sewage into Islais Creek west of Third. (This is their emergency backup plan!) A diver who went into the damaged pipe for inside repairs on Tuesday discovered the tunnel had collapsed. Removal of the land supporting the huge sewer main had cause shifting, then a crack and leakage. The bay fill land had liquefied and sewage spilled out. A worker who parked on the pavement toppled down into the hole atop his backhoe, nearly losing his life. Park activists converged and attempted to save their tools and plants.
The leak has hopefully stopped, but the toxic spill has ruined the Muwekma Ohlone Park that the Islais Creek activists had spent so much time and effort and love developing. A 20 ft. deep by 60 ft. long by 50 ft. wide sinkhole and a field of mud now replaces what was flowers, trees, creatures and community.
The park was the result of years of work on land traditionally occupied by the Ohlone tribe. It had become a sanctuary of native plants, birds, and community groups, a refuge of green surrounded by the ships and towering industrial machinery of the Port of San Francisco. The "guerilla gardeners" have maintained the site for eight years with the permission of the port. With a USDA urban partnership grant they won a year ago, they master-planned habitat restoration of the land and intertidal areas, and environmental education programs. This past year groups such as the SF Conservation Corps, SLUG, Wildlife Habitat Council, the Living Art Community and many Bayview and Islais groups and individuals had done a massive cleanup, restoration and support. Four or five protected species have been found during the habitat survey, plus one unique vertebrate never before found. It was enthusiatically documented by the California Academy of Sciences. In an August ceremony special earth had been donated by indigenous residents of San Francisco. Art and cultural events were held this summer including a Native American film festival in May. A healing pole and history placard were planned. Two other significant grants have since been awarded.
Emergency cleanup crews are still frantically working day and night to remediate the situation. Eighty million gallons of secondary (post treatment plant) effluent went through the main and now goes into Islais Creek. There is a $15/gallon fine on the books, reflecting the seriousness of this type of spill. The cost of the work may pale next to the impending fine. On Thursday, Thanksgiving day, they welded bands on the sewer pipe as a custom gasket was being flown out from the east coast to enable re-pressurize and testing the main. Muni talked of putting concrete around the pipe next Monday.
What will happen now, what should happen? Who is going to pay, who will restore the park? "How do you put a value on life?" says David Erickson, project facilitator for the sanctuary and eight year participant. He contemplated the displaced frogs hopping around the upheaved earth and equipment, the birds, the earthworms. "It takes a lifetime to watch a tree grow," he said of the uprooted eight year old trees. "It looks like Khandahar (Afghanistan)--a huge hole in the ground." The city crew said they would try to save some of the trees. A Muni engineering supervisor assured him that they're "not going to walk away from this" and promised nice topsoil. "First I felt shock, then anger." said David, "Now I hope some good will come out of it."
And the disaster opened up a whole new set of ominous questions. Why were the transmission lines being run to the Hunter's Point power plant that supposedly is to be closed instead of the much closer Potrero plant? Why was the city drilling under a sewage main on fill with a high risk of liquefaction. Where are the Environment Impact Reports for this work and for the duct banks for the line under the creek. There is even a possibility that they weren't sure there was a sewage outfall above the drilling. Perhaps Sophie Maxwell and City Hall should call for hearings to bring some sunshine to bear on what's going on.
And at the same time, in the same area, why is the Illinois Street railroad bridge suddenly (via pressure and money from Catellus) being transformed into a 2-lane or 4-lane intermodal (with rail)? A north-south corridor for huge trucks from the asphalt and concrete plant across the channel at the Pier 90s to serve Mission Bay developments? Threatening to cut through Illinois Street alongside the residents and the sanctuary, it will destroy the loading docks, the outrigger canoe club, the shoreline and intertidal habitat. Neighbors are organizing and having meetings to stop this looming threat of traffic and pollution to this unique corner of the city. To get involved contact david [at] islaiscreek.com.
Photos by David Erickson and Maurice Campbell: http://www.monkeyview.net/zabudam%40pacbell.net/sewercollapse/index.vhtml (photos in chronological order from just before the damage to newest at bottom)
Before damage photos: http://www.monkeyview.net/zabudam%40pacbell.net/index.vhtml
More information on the park and pictures at http://www.muwekma.org/news/park.html and at the link below.