EL SOBRANTE -- For nearly three months, sewage has been seeping onto Cris Ramirez's property, the result of a failure in a neighbor's septic system. The problem has gotten so bad that she and her husband won't let their 5-year-old daughter play in her own backyard.
But despite repeated pleas to county health officials and the neighboring property owner to fix the problem, Ramirez has no idea if and when the contamination of their property will stop.
"We are our neighbors' leachfield, and the county is OK with it," she said Friday.
The situation facing Ramirez and her husband, Mike McCarthy, highlights a continuing concern for the thousands of residents throughout the county who are still hooked up to septic tanks instead of modern sewage systems. When the tanks fail, sewage can easily seep onto private properties and public spaces, but there is no clear mechanism for resolving the problem quickly.
"We are getting so tired of this," Ramirez wrote County Environmental Health Director Marilyn Underwood on July 5. "I don't want (my daughter) anywhere near that area. We are scared about the level of E Coli."
Almost three months ago, county health officials documented the presence of nitrates, a common manifestation of septic system failure, in water at the base of a retaining wall at Ramirez's Sobrante Avenue home. And in a June 14 letter to Ramirez's upslope neighbors on Circle Drive, Brook Ann Buckman and Victor Acosta, Underwood had declared an "immediate health hazard and public nuisance" and told the couple to "take corrective action immediately" to stop sewage from leaking from their home. Buckman and Acosta, meanwhile, said they are doing all they can.
"We're poor; we're broke," Acosta told a reporter visiting last month, "We're trying to do the right thing. We don't have the money."
Ramirez and McCarthy, meanwhile, fear their property is being contaminated by sewage and that it could affect their family's health.
"Once again, under your department's 'close monitoring,' you have allowed the (Circle Drive) residents to send down their septic waste on to our home," Ramirez wrote to Underwood last week after the flow of effluent from her neighbors increased again.
In the June 14 letter, Underwood told Buckman and Acosta to have their septic tank pumped "as often as needed until the septic system is replaced," which was supposed to happen by July 31. Alternatively, Underwood suggested Buckman and Acosta try to hook up to a public sewer -- the nearest one being either about 300 feet or 900 feet away, by different agencies' estimates.
Still on septic
The Buckman-Acosta home is among a cluster of about 100 area houses that have septic systems and lie just outside the boundary of the West County Wastewater District. State water policy encourages switching homes from septic systems to a public sewer -- if one is available. But responsibility for implementing the policy lies with counties.
Said Underwood, "In our ordinance and regulation, there is a requirement that a property try to connect with sewer if the parcel boundary is within 300 feet of the sewer ... In this case, the parcel is approximately 900 feet, so the requirement does not apply."
But according to E.J. Shalaby, general manager at West County Wastewater, the Buckman-Acosta property is about 310 feet from the nearest sewer manhole. It is not clear who, if anyone, has a handle on how many homes countywide are still on septic tanks. Underwood referred the question to the county Assessor's Office, which said last week it does not have that information, and also to the county Conservation and Development Department, which referred a reporter back to Underwood.
The wastewater district estimates the cost to annex and hook up the 100-odd homes in Ramirez's and Buckman's neighborhood at $2.86 million, or about $28,600 per home.
The cost to build a complete septic system for a typical single-family house in the El Sobrante area would be between $30,000 and $40,000, said Jack Shane, co-owner of A-1 Septic Tank Service of Hayward, a leading Bay Area septic firm. West County Wastewater's one-time sewer connection charge is $2,853 for single-family homes; plan approval and a permit total an additional $469. The annual sewer use charge for single-family houses is $347.
While the costs of annexation and hooking up to public sewers often fall to property owners, the county took the lead, in a recent case, to bring sewer service to a property previously dependent on a septic system. The Contra Costa County Redevelopment Agency, now defunct, spent an estimated $1.734 million to annex and connect the Rodeo Marina to the Rodeo Sanitary District and its treatment plant; the connection was completed earlier this year. The idea, according to county reports, was to stimulate economic activity in the Rodeo waterfront area as part of a greater downtown redevelopment effort. An entrepreneur group headed by former Pinole and Pittsburg city manager Marc Grisham bought the marina several years ago and wants to establish a winery as part of a tourist destination with restaurants and shops.
On July 17, Underwood wrote Buckman and Acosta again, reiterating the need to have the tank pumped as a stopgap measure while postponing to Aug. 31 the deadline to install a new septic system. A short time earlier, the couple, with the county's acquiescence, hired a contractor to fix a blockage in the pipe leading to the leachfield, hoping it would exonerate their septic system as the culprit.
"It would be a misuse of our authority to insist they spend tens of thousands of dollars to replace a system when a relatively inexpensive fix would result in the desired outcome," Underwood told Ramirez in a July 17 email.
Searching for a solution
Eliminating the blockage did not solve the problem. Nevertheless, the county rescinded its demand to replace the entire septic system, agreeing to let Buckman and Acosta replace just their septic tank by Aug. 31.
"We would consider that a long-term solution if it corrects the problem," supervising Environmental Health Specialist John Wiggins said in an Aug. 1 email to this newspaper. "If installation of the new septic tank does not correct the issue, then they will be required to replace the septic system."
Ramirez believes the county's forbearance vis-a-vis Buckman and Acosta is coming at the expense of her family's safety and comfort. The county should red-flag the neighbors' house and declare it uninhabitable until it has a functioning sewage disposal system, she said, adding that the ill-fated septic system failed at least once before, about 12 years ago.
"It's never-ending." What scares us is that we are now in August," she said Thursday, adding that if the installation of the replacement tank gets delayed into the rainy season, she and her family might have to wait until next spring, when the ground is dry again, to find out whether the fix worked.