Hollister City Manager Bill Avera has recently been caught in the glare of intense public scrutiny following an editorial demanding his resignation or firing, as well as newspaper articles proclaiming his incompetence, as he was accused of everything from gross negligence to being unconcerned about pollution to spearheading a cover-up.
Saying he is not one who normally pays attention to newspapers or what people say about him, Avera agreed to an interview with BenitoLink to shed some light, from his perspective, on recent spills of tomato waste into the San Benito River channel and why he thinks it’s no one’s fault.
Avera said it is a common misconception to think of everything that flows through underground pipes as sewage. He said there is a dual line that runs from the San Benito Foods cannery to the industrial treatment plant, located between Apricot Lane and San Benito River, which is essentially a dry riverbed.
“It is a storm drain and can’t mix with sewer lines,” he said. “The Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB) would never allow somebody to have sewage in a storm drain line.”
Avera said the material that is transported from San Benito Foods to the industrial waste treatment plant through the storm drain line is tomato waste and hot water. For those who may be unclear about the functions or locations of the industrial treatment plant and the domestic wastewater (sewage) treatment facility, a quick look at Google Maps will show that they are not only two separate facilities, but are separated by a mile or more in distance.
“The wastewater treatment plant near (Highway) 156 is the only facility that the City of Hollister owns that deals with sewage,” Avera said. “Three months a year, the industrial treatment plant processes or breaks down tomato waste. That’s all they do.”
According to a RWQCB notice of violation letter to the city, there were two large-volume sanitary sewer spills from the city’s combined sanitary/industrial collection system. One spill occurred on July 16, 2016, and the second on Sept. 6, 2016. Both were at the same location. The notice of violation called for a technical report concerning what it called “overflows” as well as incidents of nuisance odors to determine if there were any water quality or public health issues.
The notice pointed out that the water quality officials first became aware of nuisance odors on or around July 21. The duration of complaints of odors to local authorities lasted from July 25 to Aug. 23.. The definition of nuisance odors covers anything from being too offensive to the senses to being injurious to health.
Avera readily admitted there is an odor issue each summer, but he said it’s more about biology than negligence.
“We have hot tomatoes going down to a treatment plant,” he said. “What we try to do every year is get better on how to minimize odors, but I’m going to guarantee there’s going to be an odor because that’s just the way it works. It’s biology. You fill up the ponds. You activate the bugs (bacteria) and you’re all ready to go and you’ve done everything humanely possible, but when you flush 7.5 million gallons of tomatoes down there in a few days it takes a little while for those bugs to catch up.”
Sometimes it comes down to the tomatoes, he said.
“A tomato this year isn’t necessarily like the tomato last year,” he said. “Last year, they had a lot of heat, so it was super sugary. Just the chemical compound of the tomato itself was different. You and I could probably eat what was coming out of there and not get sick. It’s like the Title 22 water, the purple valve. We can drink that and not get sick, but I’m not sure we would want to.”
Both spills were related to a slide gate buried 14 feet below West Street. Avera explained that the first spill happened because the slide gate failed, causing the diversion of the cannery’s effluent from the main storm drain to a channel beside the treatment ponds. The city estimated approximately 200 gallons may have made it into the dry riverbed. As a temporary stop-gap, the city purchased two inflatable rubber bladders and installed one at the diversion point where the slide gate failed. City staff then began working with the Wallace Group to devise a permanent fix. Within 25 days, however, the first bladder failed, causing the second spill. The backup bladder was installed the same day, but not before nearly 600,000 gallons poured through, of which an estimated 38,000 gallons went into the river.
“When we contacted them (regional water board) Cecil (DeMartini, an engineer with the water board) didn’t even want to come out because it was so minor,” Avera said. “I think they understand what the product is. They did call Darryl (Wong) from (county) environmental health, and he was out there. We’ve had conversations with Darryl and he knew it wasn’t a big deal either.”
In a letter from the water board to Hollister Mayor Ignacio Velazquez, the board stated that the city violated reporting requirements and the city was subject to possible civil liability of up to $1,000 per day for each violation. There are also potential civil liability fines against individuals of up to $5,000 per day or up to $10 per gallon per day for each violation.
Thea Tryon, enforcement coordinator for the water board, told BenitoLink on Feb. 1 that there had not, as yet, been any determination of responsibility or possible fines.
“We’re still in the information-gathering stage,” she said. “We’re waiting for them to respond to our request in the NOV (notice of violation). When we receive it, we will review the information and determine the next step moving forward in terms of enforcement. All of those decisions will be confidential.”
Tryon said the deadline for the city to respond with a technical report is Feb. 27.
“We’re looking at this as a priority because it looks like it was a significant spill,” she said, “but until we have the information it’s hard to say right now how significant it was.”
Avera said he does not want to downplay the two spills and that there was no cover-up.
“It’s not like we were hiding the incident,” he said. “We told everybody that needed to know — most importantly Fish and Wildlife — because they’re the ones who monitor the river. We’re not allowed to go in there and just do things. When they were out, they said to just clean it up with hand tools. They don’t want heavy equipment in the riverbed. When it dries out, the water percolates into the ground and you’re left with a film, which is very easy to pick up and throw away. We had a few guys out there for one day with shovels picking it up.”
On Oct. 20, the city approved a task order for the Wallace Group to design a permanent solution.
“The city council approved the plans and specs for the permanent fix,” Avera explained. “It’s a new slide gate made from fiberglass that won’t be affected by the acidity from the tomatoes.”
As to why a more substantial fix wasn’t done after the slide gate first failed, Avera said the bladder was never considered a permanent solution. The new slide gate would eventually cost approximately $60,000, with the total cost of the gate and installation being $200,000.
“This is not something you just get at. That’s what’s frustrating,” Avera said about the accusations of incompetence and who’s to blame.
“This is about 14 feet deep and a 24-inch area that widens out into a 48-inch storm drain,” he said. “You don’t have a situation where you can go down while the cannery is operating. Our main goal is to keep the cannery operating. We don’t want to shut the cannery down because you don’t generate a sense of reliability if the city shuts down a major business for a couple days. And it’s not a couple days.
“We first started talking to Wallace in September, and entered into a contract in October. We got them (plans and specs) adopted (Jan. 9) and the mayor looked at me like he had no idea what was going on. He’s taken action on it. He knows what’s going on. We had no opportunity to do anything. You can’t just send some guys down in a hole.”
Even though no government agency has fined the city over the spills so far, the Air Resource Board did fine it $1,100 for the odors. Avera doubts if there ever will be a fine for the spills, comparing the notice of violation to a fix-it ticket from the police or a city code violation.
“If we catch somebody doing something wrong and inform them and we say they’re in violation of a code, if they correct the code violation and they’re not completely negligent about how they were doing it, we don’t fine them,” he said. “That’s generally how the regional water control board works.”
After receiving notice from the water board, Velazquez stated publicly that he wanted to look into the matter and determine who was to blame. Recently, he confirmed to BenitoLink that during a city council closed session he attempted to have Avera terminated because when no one stepped up to take responsibility for the spills he felt the city manager was ultimately responsible and should either resign or be fired. Other city council members present did not support him, though. Velazquez told BenitoLink that he was frustrated that the same issues keep being repeated and someone must be held responsible.
Avera responded to the mayor’s insistence that he is responsible.
“It’s disappointing that the mayor would try to terminate my contract for an incident that involved old, dilapidated equipment,” he said. “It sends a bad message. I think you would have a difficult time finding another city manager, or anyone else, willing to step up and take this position if you’re going to be questioned on things that nobody has any real control over.”
Only gross negligence would be grounds for his termination, Avera said.
“I can say that I have not ever demonstrated gross negligence,” he said, adding that he also did not believe any staff member has been negligent. “They’re all dedicated employees. Most of us live here. This is the community we’ve all raised our families in. I would be disappointed that I’ve spent 22 years of my career in the community and because of a slide gate 14 feet below West Street doesn’t work that I would lose my entire career over it.”
The other part of the “who’s-responsible-for-what” part of the equation, says Avera, is the sheer magnitude of effluent that the cannery produces that the city has to treat.
“We process anywhere between 2.3 and 2.5 million gallons a day from the cannery,” he said. “They pay for the entire operation of our facility. The transmission line is ours. The product that we transport is theirs and they pay for everything in between. They pay for all the treatment expenses. They pay for the staffing. They pay the power bill. It’s a storm drain system and that’s ours.
“There is no difference to me, and it shouldn’t be to anyone else, when a water line breaks on San Benito Street. You can’t explain to me why there would be a difference as to why that piece of pipe failed and a slide gate failing. That’s why I laughed at Ignacio when he said, ‘I’ve got to find somebody and hold them accountable.’ Accountable for a failing infrastructure? You’re not going to find that guy.”
Avera went on to explain that he believes no one person should be held responsible because most of the sewage and storm drainage systems are old and too expensive to repair en masse.
“There are some areas in town that have a product (pipes) that is not as good as those in the newer subdivisions,” he said. “Our older system is a combination of concrete and stuff called Orangeburg pipe, a clay material. Most of our systems are gravity flow, but we have some pump stations, and we have two earthquake faults that run right through the center of town. It’s like the federal government and its bridges. They have thousands of bridges they’re responsible for, but they’re not repairing them because they don’t have the money to do it.”
Avera said another, but related, issue is that the sewer system doesn’t really belong to the city.
“It belongs to the state agencies who tell us how to operate it,” he said. “That’s part of my frustration. I have a council that I’ve got to keep happy from a budget perspective, but then I have state agencies telling me what I have to do from a regulatory perspective. They want our lines videotaped every year. They want us to go out and do hotspots. All of these things that they want us to be doing to ensure that our system continues to function outside and above what my council is allowing through a budgetary perspective that what we as rate payers can afford.”
Should the spills have happened, Avera asked rhetorically, and answered, “No.”
Was it a crisis?
“I don’t believe it’s a crisis,” he said. “We contained an incident that had no negative effect on the environment. I don’t know where you can call it a crisis.”