Story by Miriam Raftery, Photos by Jim Pelley
November 6, 2011 (Ocotillo) – Why did portable toilets at SDG&E Sunrise Powerlink sites in Ocotillo blow over on multiple occasions? Why did one remain tipped over for at least three days? Where were Powerlink workers relieving themselves during that period?
An ECM investigation has resulted in changes to procedures for SDG&E contractors regarding the handling of portable toilet facilities at Powerlink worksites on federal Bureau of Land Management properties.
Initially, complaints to SDG&E, the California Public Utilities Commission, and health officials in Imperial County seemed fruitless. No clean-up was ordered, despite an eyewitness who claims to have seen human feces leak from a port-a-potty. The witness, award-winning photographer Jim Pelley, also provided photos documenting toilet paper blowing out the open door of the Porta-Potty and across the desert floor in areas frequented by off-roaders and outdoor enthusiasts on public lands. Yet regulators initially claimed they had no power even to order the facilities to be tied down, despite strong winds.
The saga began on September 6, when Pelley was riding his motorcycle in Ocotillo and spotted a portable potty tipped over at a Powerlink construction site. He reported the problem to the Imperial County Department of Health on September 7.
On September 8, he returned to the site and found the toilet still on its side, while a Powerlink worker guzzled a drink a few feet away, clearly aware of the problem. Pelley forwarded photos to the health department again, this time labeling it “Porta Potty blown over leaking human fluids for 3 days or more.” He has also notified SDG&E and its environmental consultants, Aspen Consulting, as well as various other parties.
Pelley, further filed a complaint with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency which stated, “Port-a- Potty on its side leaking human feces on the ground of a federally protected aquifer for over two days at a construction site.”
On September 9, Gene Sylls at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency thanked Pelley for his tip and said it would be forwarded to the Regional Water Quality Control Board Region 9.
On September 12, he again went motorcycle riding and found another porta-potty on its side just east of Painted Gorge Road in Ocotillo. While new power lines were firmly secured to the ground on this windy day, the porta-potty was not. Pelley provided GPS coordinates for the location. He also forwarded his complaint and photos to the California Public Utilities Commission, San Diego Supervisor Dianne Jacob (since Powerlink construction spans both Imperial and San Diego County), and other officials in addition to the parties listed above.
His photos from September 12 further showed legs holding the portable potty onto a trailer had broken off. Pelly asked, “Has this been fixed or was it just tilted back upright? If the port-a-potty has not been decommissioned or fixed it will end up falling over again.”
On September 19, Imperial County Supervisor Jesus “Jack” Terrazas contacted his County’s health department after meeting with about 50 Ocotillo residents who voiced concerns over several issues, including the blown-over port-a-potty that “spilled its `chemical’ on site. Apparently it was several days before anyone picked it up, but the site was not cleaned,” Terrazas stated, adding that he also had complaints of a lot of dust blowing up from the helicopter landings. He asked for help. “What, if anything can we do?”
But on September 22, Jeff Lamoure, deputy director of the Imperial County Environmental Health Department, dismissed the concerns regarding the port-a-potty blown over the weekend of September 11 stating that it appeared that the potty’s “contents were contained within the holding tank.” Further, he stated, “there is no evidence of anything having spilled.” However he added that staff has asked SDG&E’s contractor to provide disposal receipts to ensure they are using a licensed septage hauler.
On September 25, Fritts Golden, environmental consultant to SDG&E for the project, said of the incident, “Our environmental monitor reports that it was righted and removed the next day. No chemicals were spilled.”
Pelley insists that the toilets leaked human feces and other fluids, as well as debris. “They said they turned it over and nothing leaked on the ground, which was not true,” he said.
On October 25, the photographer went back to Ocotillo during a raging wind storm. He found yet another portable toilet that posed a risk of blowing over, since it, too, was not tied down. “It’s in a very windy area and the door latch appears to be broken,” he wrote in an e-mail to ECM. “You can see the black tape used to hold it shut from the outside.”
The door had blown open and, he added, “There was toilet tissue blowing all across the desert.” He sent photos and a video to prove his point. View video: http://youtu.be/g5EEmXbYeuE
On October 26, Terrazas sent an e-mail to Lamoure asking, “Is there any way to require a tie-down when needed?”
Lamoure responded that “There is nothing in State law or County Ordinance that would allow Environmental Health to enforce the securing of a port-a-potty, but we will strongly encourage that they secure it in some manner.”
He also forwarded photos October 26 showing bolted pins now attaching at least one portable toilet to a
frame attached to a trailer used for towing it. It is unclear, however, whether the portable potty would be secured to the ground once the trailer used for towing leaves the site.
Pelley expressed frustration over the repeated problems and told ECM that he has filed other complaints related to Powerlink actions in Ocotillo with unsatisfactory results. Those include “dust from helicopters blowing across the job sites and oil leaking from equipment” as well as cables strung across off-roadways that could imperil riders. “I called the CHP (California Highway Patrol) 3 times for fully loaded water trucks and cement trucks speeding down the roads in town (65 mph in 35 mph zones and the basic response was, “We are short handed, we only have four cars to patrol from Imperial County to Alpine. What do you want us to do about it?”
He lamented, “It seems like these new projects are exempt from all the laws out here; no one does anything about it.”
ECM asked SDG&E and Aspen the following questions shortly after the October 25th incident, but has not received any responses:
- What is being done to stop porta-potties from blowing over? Clearly some sort of weighting-down or improved system is needed.
- What is being done to sterilize the area where these blown-over porta potties have been, to protect the public health should any hiker or off-roader walk or sit on these sites?
- How many others have blown over that our photographer wasn’t handy to photograph?
- Who is the provider of these port-a-potties and what sort of safety record do they have?
Terry Weiner, Imperial County Projects and conservation Coordinator with the Desert Protective Council, forwarded the complaint stream to the Bureau of Land Management’s field office in El Centro. “They have responsibility to ensure that the project developers are not causing additional harm to the land,” he wrote in an e-mail sent to Pelley, noting that SDG&E’s actions have already destroyed “hundreds of acres of habitat just for their construction equipment and “lay down” areas, not to mention the hundreds of miles of transmission line construction footprint.”
Recently, ECM contacted Margaret Goodro, field office manager, at BLM’s El Centro office. Today, November 7, we received a response from Stephen M. Razo, director of external affairs for the BLM.
Razo revealed actions taken aimed at improving the situation, though the BLM stops short of requiring the port-a-potties to be secured to prevent blowing over.
“Based on the reports received, the port-a-pottie concerns are now addressed by the construction contractor,” Razo stated, adding that reports indicate a likelihood that the toppling occurred at night. Corrective actions include removing all portable toilets from the sites at the end of each work day, appropriately removing and properly disposing of toilet paper refuse at the site, and assuring that each vehicle on-site is equipped with “Brief Relief” kits (http://briefrelief.com/
) for use when facilities are not available.
He added, “Thank you again for bringing this matter to our attention.”
Razo also provided the following response to citizens’ concerns regarding blowing dust and planting vegetation to restore sites left bare. “Temporarily disturbed areas at all yards and all tower sites will be restored and re-vegetated in accordance with the Habitat Restoration Plan,” he said, adding, “The tower site will have a permanent impact to the footprint; however, the disturbed area around each tower will be restored per the Habitat Restoration Plan.” Further information regarding addressing these concerns may be found in the Mitigation Monitoring Compliance and Reporting Plan, available on the CPUC website at: http://www.cpuc.ca.gov/Environment/Info/aspen/sunrise/toc-mmcrp.htm
Additionally, Mitigation B-1a [Provide restoration/compensation for impacted sensitive vegetation communities.] (MMCRP pg. 44) states, in part:
“The Habitat Restoration Plan shall incorporate Desert Bioregion Revegetation/Restoration Guidance measures for restoration of temporary impacts to desert scrub and dune habitats. These measures generally include alleviating soil compaction, returning the surface to its original contour, pitting or imprinting the surface to allow small areas where seeds and rain water can be captured, planting seedlings that have acquired the necessary root mass to survive without watering, planting seedlings in the spring with herbivory cages, broadcasting locally collected seed immediately prior to the rainy season, and covering the seeds with mulch.
“The Habitat Restoration Plan shall also incorporate the measures identified in the May 25, 2006 Memorandum of Understanding among Edison Electric Institute, USDA Forest Service, BLM, USFWS, National Park Service, and the Environmental Protection Agency (Edison Electric Institute, et al., 2006) where applicable. The MOU discusses vegetation management along ROWs for electrical transmission and distribution facilities on federal lands. The major provisions of the MOU include reducing soil erosion and water quality impacts; promoting local ecotypes in revegetation projects; planting native species and protecting rare species; and reducing the introduction of non-native, invasive or noxious plant species to the ROWs. The MOU can be viewed online at:
The Habitat Restoration Plan has been approved by the various resource agencies. Among other activities, the Plan requires recontouring, surface preparation, seeding/planting, and monitoring, as appropriate. The full plan is found on line at: