Trash in the Tributaries

For years, illegal dumps have befouled a protected watershed, while the agency in charge of cleanup ignored the problem.

On warm weekends, scores of bicyclists hit the roads that snake into the East Bay Hills and through the Upper San Leandro Reservoir Watershed — a popular escape that swaps traffic and city noise for the tranquillity of a vast oak forest and stunning reservoir views. But try to stray from the road and you’ll find that the East Bay Municipal Utilities District restricts public access to the watershed’s wildlands in order to reduce fire danger and keep them as pristine as possible.

Which is why admirers of the watershed’s rugged beauty might be surprised at the festering secret that lies deep within these wooded gorges: The tributaries of the Upper San Leandro Reservoir, which supplies hundreds of thousands of homes in Contra Costa and Alameda counties with drinking water, are awash in heavy-duty trash.

For years, degenerate muckworms keen to save a few bucks in landfill fees have driven to the remote haven to dump their junk into the native woodlands and freshwater creeks. There are an estimated forty illegal dump sites all told, most of them on EBMUD land, and some of them quite large. This means that millions of gallons of rainwater en route to the reservoir are filtered through tons of rusting cars, lead-acid batteries, household appliances, and a mishmash of industrial solvents, old paint cans, pesticide containers, and other hazardous waste.

The district has known for years about the dumping problem, but opted to look the other way. Only recently, an unusually detailed citizen complaint has compelled EBMUD to take baby steps toward what could prove a difficult and costly cleanup.

These dumps present several hazards, including the potential for contaminating the reservoir. But most pressing, perhaps, is the threat of a wildfire ignited by a stray cigarette or combustible agents in the dump and fueled by the seemingly thousands of old tires that fill the creek beds and densely wooded bottomland. Indeed, the worst dump sites, off upper Pinehurst Road near the community of Canyon, are just below the Oakland Hills, which in 1991 experienced the most destructive fire in state history.

Within these deep, tree-lined gorges is so much discarded stuff that the visual effect through the shade and hazy sunlight is surreal. There are at least two dozen cars, many eerily suspended in trees they crashed into as they careered down the gorge walls. On the floor of the gorge, it is difficult to determine the full extent of the garbage because much of it is buried by sediment that washes down the steep embankments. Among the things protruding from the ground are refrigerators, a large compressed-gas cylinder, and the front right fender of a car. And then there are the tires: layer upon layer of them in the creek and on the ground, creating unnatural waterfalls and bizarre black-rubber retaining walls — not to mention fertile breeding grounds for West Nile-packing mosquitoes.

Since the dumpers have long slithered away, the cleanup responsibilities fall to EBMUD. Rob Alcott, the district’s director of natural resources, says the dumping is extremely difficult to prevent, with only nine rangers patrolling the district’s five East Bay reservoirs, 28,000 acres of watershed, and nearly sixty miles of roadway. Still, it wasn’t until recently, when a bottle collector stumbled upon two massive dumps and complained, that EBMUD even bothered to conduct an inventory.

Robin Deeming, who lives in the area, was foraging for antique bottles last November below Pinehurst Road. “I was looking for bottles off-trail in this ravine and the further back I went, the more garbage I found,” said Deeming, who also found a rusting 9mm handgun in one gorge. “I was absolutely astounded by the size of these dumps and the more I found, the madder I became.”

On November 21, she fired off a letter complete with detailed maps and a CD of photographs to EBMUD Board Director Katy Foulkes, the former mayor of Piedmont. Foulkes said she passed it to the EBMUD administration and requested an assessment. According to Alcott, the district’s initial assessment determined that nearly all of the materials in the estimated forty dump sites below Pinehurst and Redwood roads present little to no fire hazard, especially at this time of year. “We believe all of the material in the dump sites is benign,” he said. “We see very little fire risk.”

Based on the assessment, he added, there is no evidence the reservoir has been adversely affected. But the district’s assessment, which essentially consists of two and a half pages of handwritten notes describing debris at 23 locations, raises doubts as to whether the inspector even strayed from the road. The document, which lacks such basic information as the date, name of the person doing the inventory, and summary of the findings, reads more like a hasty grocery list rather than a serious risk assessment. The inspector either drastically underestimated — or entirely missed — the two biggest sites. The district counted no more than four cars in the 23 sites examined, yet the two Pinehurst sites alone contain at least 24 cars within several hundred feet of one another. And while the assessment mentioned paint cans, it failed to note the compressed-gas cylinder or the unmarked five-gallon containers filled with who knows what.

According to EBMUD’s annual water quality report, levels of potentially harmful substances in its reservoirs are always within state standards. But the reports also show that the runoff into the Upper San Leandro consistently exceeds state standards for carcinogenic hydrocarbons and a variety of metals.

EBMUD spokesman Jeff Becerra notes that the water flowing from the watershed basin into the 794-acre reservoir gets mixed with fresh water from the Mokelumne River, which dilutes any contaminants in the runoff. In addition, he said, the water is rigorously tested and treated. By the time it hits the tap, it has been filtered through sand, carbon, or anthracite, and disinfected with a combination of chlorine and ammonia. “At every step of the way, the water is tested,” he said. “It’s tested at the reservoir, it’s tested as it goes into the treatment plants, and tested again as it goes out.”

While it’s debatable whether the dumps pose any threat to local drinking water, it’s harder to credibly brush aside the fire danger. In fact, piles of trashed cars, compressed-gas cylinders, unknown solvents, and old tires may well pack some disastrous potential. According to Jim Purchio, an assistant captain with the Alameda County Fire Department, the biggest hazard is not knowing exactly what the dumps contain. “There could be chemicals from methamphetamine labs, which are particularly volatile, and the tires, if ever ignited, could create a little oil fire,” he said. “Tire fires are very difficult to suppress and they liquefy when they burn, which could further spread the fire.” He added that fighting a fire in the steep gorges and rough terrain is difficult and dangerous enough without having to haul in the special gear needed for tire fires.

Contra Costa County Environmental Health Specialist Agnes Vinluan was concerned to hear about all the tires. She said they would be a serious hazard in the event of a fire. “Tires have a low flashpoint, which means they are easily ignitable,” she said, “and once they start burning they turn to pyrolytic oil, which is loaded with highly carcinogenic compounds like benzene, toluene, and xylene and, of course, your leads and zincs.”

Alcott said the district now plans to clean up the dumps before the next fire season. “Make no mistake, these sites will be cleaned up pronto once conditions are better,” he said. “We are already looking at ways to remove the heavier objects without causing damage to the sides of the gorges.”

Deeming was glad to hear it: “From my point of view, this area is absolutely beautiful and all of that human-created garbage shouldn’t be there,” she said.

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