In two independent inspections over the past year, the city of Berkeley’s trash and recycling hub was found in violation of clean water laws.

The violations pertain to how stormwater is managed at the seven-acre Second Street transfer station and recycling processing site — the legally required steps the city must take to help prevent harmful pollutants from flowing or seeping into nearby creeks and the San Francisco Bay. Most regulation is under the federal Clean Water Act, enforced by the state Water Resources Control Board, and its regional offices.

Violations included clogged drains, overflowing stacks of recycled materials, lingering oily sheen and incomplete required testing and reporting. At least some were observed after last winter’s heavy rainfall.

While none of the recent violations are massive, like a major toxic spill hidden in bushes or underground, collectively they paint a picture of lax or waning attention to ongoing pollution prevention measures at the aging and overcrowded site. The transfer station is earmarked for a complete overhaul, a project that’s winding its way through the building permit pipeline.

“Berkeley was not in compliance,” said Julio Gutiérrez Morales, a lawyer for the nonprofit California River Watch, a Santa Rosa-based environmental watchdog, referring to Clean Water Act stormwater requirements. River Watch inspected the transfer station last October, based on an eyewitness tip, Gutiérrez Morales said, later sending the city an “intent to sue” letter. “If we can help the environment by assuring that facilities are in compliance with their permit, everyone wins, Gutiérrez Morales said.  

The second inspection came in January by the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, the local wing of the state water board. In February, the water board sent the city a notice of violations, with a short window to respond before facing significant fines. 

Big warehouse with containers full of trash
Berkeley’s recycling station on Friday, Sept. 22, 2023. During a visit earlier this year, water board inspectors noted overflowing stacks of recycled materials, cardboard and plastic, with falling and blowing debris. Credit: Kate Darby Rauch

The two separate, but related, inspections have kept the city busy.

In March it sent the water board a response, outlining measures taken and planned to address violations. And earlier this month, the city announced a settlement with River Watch committing to several actions at the sites, while admitting no wrongdoing. In exchange, River Watch said it won’t sue. The city also agreed to pay for the nonprofit’s legal fees of $63,529.  

“The operational changes being implemented at the Berkeley Transfer Station can reasonably be expected to reduce the amount and increase the quality of any stormwater discharged from the facility, thereby reducing the City’s impact to local water resources,” reads a Sept. 19 City Council report on the settlement with River Watch.

Gutiérrez Morales called the city “a good actor” for proactively addressing problems at the station rather than waiting to get sued, a goal of River Watch’s legal actions.

The city owns the transfer station and adjacent recycling center, but contracts with Community Conservation Center for most of its recycling operations and with the Ecology Center for curbside pick-up.

Berkeleyside asked the city to comment on the violations, and while staff shared documents quickly, no statement was issued in time for publication.

Violations include backed up drains and failure to collect proper samples

A truck goes through the transfer station
A worker at the city’s recycling center on Friday, Sept. 22. Credit: Kate Darby Rauch

Even on the driest of days, with strong sun and no hint of rain, conditions at Berkeley’s transfer station can get pretty dirty. Understandably, as this is the city’s landing spot for trash. Many know the familiar stench.

Add rain to the combo of garbage, recyclables, green waste, electronic waste, construction debris and more at the disposal hub, and things get mucky, especially the ground — the concrete, asphalt and dirt.

In California, this muck or stormwater must be managed to protect nearby waters from pollutants draining from the site. Transfer stations are required to follow an “industrial general permit,” issued and enforced by the state water board. The permit also covers some non-storm runoff waters, such as from hosing or cleaning. Permit compliance relies on following site-specific and updated industry best practices, which the city must outline in a thick master planning document called the Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plan.  

In their inspections, the water board and River Watch found some similar violations at the transfer station. River Watch’s concerns were generally more extensive, based in part on a historical dive into a few years of transfer station’s mandatory stormwater sampling and reporting.

The inspections weren’t related. “There is no relationship between the Water Board’s inspection of the Transfer Station and CA River Watch. When the Water Board inspected the facility in January, we did not have knowledge of River Watch’s involvement,” said Eileen White, executive director of the regional water quality board. 

Transfer station staff accompanied inspectors in both cases.

Drainage is the center stage of stormwater control, and drainage was central to the concerns of the state board and the nonprofit.

A complex system of drains serves the transfer site, located in different sections of the operation or catchment areas. Some connect with the city’s storm drain system, gutters and culverts that carry untreated runoff to the bay. Others connect with the city’s or the East Bay Municipal Utilities District’s sewage system, which feeds into treatment plants before being released into the bay.

Some drains at the transfer station are trenched; some screened or filtered to catch debris; some equipped with cleaning devices. Some stormwater is pumped into holding silos or tanks before being transferred to sewage pipes. Some trenches have adjustable gates, where water can be directed to the city’s sewage system (treated) or the run-off system (untreated).

According to the water board’s Jan. 3 inspection report, many areas of the transfer station looked clear, especially under roofed operations. But inspectors also found drains that were backed up and filled with trash and debris. Pooled water. Drains with fabric filters that appeared to block stormwater. Torn or worn berms used to block flood waters.

Water board inspectors also noted overflowing stacks of recycled materials, cardboard and plastic, with falling and blowing debris. And an oily sheen on the ground of the truck fueling area. 

Potential flooding from Codornices Creek, which runs north of the site, was also mentioned.

Based on the industrial permit, the board categorized site violations under:

  • Good housekeeping for stormwater discharge locations and drainage areas.
  • Spill and leak prevention and response for the diesel fueling area.
  • Material handling and waste management for containment of recyclable materials.

To fix the issues, it required the city to clean and maintain problematic trench drains; replace filtering fabric that appeared to block stormwater from entering drains; provide additional information on procedures used to secure recycled material piles, and consider adding additional steps to prevent falling debris; clean diesel spills and describe procedures to prevent future spills; and collect and share detailed information on the impacts of the winter’s heavy rains, including from stormwater sampling and testing.

In its inspection findings, River Watch also questioned the placement of site drains and sampling spots. The nonprofit’s violation summary included:

  • Failure to collect and analyze the required number of storm water samples.
  • Failure to provide sampling results for discharges resulting from transportation- related activities.
  • Failure to sample from representative sampling locations.
  • Failure to collect and analyze the required number of stormwater samples.
  • Failure to implement proper erosion controls.

In addition, River Watch said the city should do more extensive testing in the truck area, specifically for TPHG and TPhd, hydrocarbons found in gasoline. “The current practice of testing for Oil & Grease does not include petroleum hydrocarbons even though the Discharger acknowledges petroleum products (oil, grease, gasoline, motor oil, and diesel) as potential sources of pollutants at the Facility,” River Watch said in its letter to the city.

The nonprofit also said the transfer station should test for 6ppd quinone, a tire preservative recently discovered to be lethal for Coho Salmon.

River Watch cited the city for insufficient required water sampling and reporting, going back three years. Some levels of pollutants in stormwater are allowed under the permit, but the system is designed to minimize this through regular self-sampling, self-reporting and self-fixing. Sampling results drive improvement requirements.

“As of the date of this Notice, the Discharger has failed to upload onto the SMART’S online database the required number of stormwater run-off sample analysis for Annual Reporting Year 2021-2022 and Annual Reporting Year 2020-2021, and has not provided an adequate explanation for its failure to do so,” said the River Watch ‘intent to sue’ letter.

The organization challenged the city’s stance that during some drought years there wasn’t enough stormwater to meet the 0.1 inch state threshold for required testing, pointing out that this precipitation level was met during the same years at nearby locations

The nonprofit said that previous years of site stormwater testing showed potentially harmful levels of several pollutants that could reach the bay, including copper, lead, zinc, iron, aluminum, COD (chemical oxygen demand) and TSS (total suspended solids).

Maintaining stormwater control best practices is critical to keeping bay waters clean, the organization said.

“River Watch contend[s] the Discharger will continue to be in violation of the [Clean Water Act] every day it discharges storm water containing pollutants” without “adequately implementing” best management practices, the organization said in its letter to the city.

Attorney Gutiérrez Morales elaborated:  “As per the Settlement Agreement, the City has agreed to complete the Remedial Measures identified in the Agreement,” he said. “Completing those remedial measures should reduce the [pollution] exceedances. We can only wait and see in the next three years to determine where the Facility is at. Until then, at least the Facility has steps to take to help them focus on what they need to do to get them into compliance.”

City agrees to improve stormwater control at transfer station

Facing fines from the water board and the threat of the lawsuit from River Watch, Berkeley is stepping up stormwater control at the transfer station. 

In its response to the water board, sent in March, the city’s actions included:

  • Cleaning trenches and storm drains, clearing drainage obstructions, inspecting grates and sump pumps.
  • Repairing a broken conveyer belt in the recycling area to help prevent pileups of material.
  • Enhancing staff training on diesel spill response.
  • Provided detailed January records of stormwater holding tanks, including noting a broken sump pump that may have led to site flooding.
  • Updating the city’s transfer station Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plan.

And in its settlement with River Watch, the city said it will:

  • Improve its stormwater sampling and monitoring after rainy weather, including using log sheets and video, and install a personal digital weather station, to measure precipitation.
  • Test for the petroleum hydrocarbons TPHG and TPhd for at least two rain events, and if none are detected this testing requirement ends. 
  • Use trench drain inspection and maintenance logs.
  • Increase the cleaning of a sump pump grate, including hand-sweeping water before it enters the grates.
  • Repaint rusted yellow construction debris containers, replace and remove containers with punctured floors.
  • Cleanup of trash and “abandoned” metal.
  • Also update the Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plan.

When asked if the city’s situation was unusual or surprising, Gutiérrez Morales from River Watch said not really. 

“Sometimes it’s a matter of not knowing what the industrial groundwater permit requires,” he said, noting it’s a complex, detailed law. “There are so many costs, manpower.”

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Freelancer Catherine "Kate" Rauch has been contributing to Berkeleyside for several years. Her work as a journalist has encompassed everything from 10 years as a daily news reporter for the East Bay Times,...