From bats to drinking water

Environmental Health manages 10 core programs for Plumas

A look at the year that was highlighted Plumas County Environmental Health Director Jerry Sipe’s overview to members of the Board of Supervisors at the Tuesday, Feb. 19, meeting.

Plumas County Environmental Health Director Jerry Sipe gave a detailed overview of the programs within the department, including a breakdown of how much time staff spent in each area the department manages. Charts courtesy of Plumas County Environmental Health Department

By and large 2018 was good for Environmental Health, according to Sipe.

What became known as the Spanish Creek Bridge spill took up a sizable amount of time and resources, Sipe noted about one of the major incidents of the last year. That incident occurred in September.

Sipe also spelled out the department’s role in ensuring that our drinking water is safe and that wastewater pathogens such as E. coli or nitrates aren’t contaminating local water sources.

Purpose of program

“Environmental Health can best be described as those aspects of human health and disease that are influenced by conditions in the environment,” Sipe said in his overview. “Chemical, physical and biological conditions are all important variables in determining human health. Promoting an environment that enhances human health and well-being is the foundation of environmental health.”

The department’s mission is to preserve the environment and enhance public health, according to Sipe’s overview. This is done through “outreach, education, planning and sensible application of environmental health principles, laws and statues,” he explained.

Sipe said the county’s program is grouped into one of 10 core program areas. Time spent on each area depends on risk factors, state mandates and what the community needs.

These 10 areas are hazardous materials, drinking water protection, food safety, liquid waste management, solid waste management, water quality protection, land use and development, rabies and vector control, recreation health, and housing and institution safety.

Last year, hazardous materials management took up far more time than any other area, according to a graph Sipe compiled. Thirty percent of the department’s time was spent in the area of hazardous materials. This category took up nearly twice as much time as any of the other divisions.

Focusing on where Environmental Health employees spent the majority of their time last year, Sipe said they responded to 16 reportable releases. These included 4,000 gallons of diesel and gasoline that spilled when a tanker overturned at the Spanish Creek Bridge on Highway 70 not far from Keddie.

That incident shut down the highway until the tanker could be removed from the site. It also required crews not only from Environmental Health, but the California Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies to respond to the cleanup. “In such emergencies, life safety is always the first priority,” Sipe said in his overview of the spill. “After the scene is safe and the immediate hazards are mitigated, Environmental Health has an ongoing role to minimize the impacts to the environment.”

Sipe explained that to gain the desired results they work with the responsible party, landowners, state agencies and others.

This chart shows Certified Unified Program Agency (CUPA) activities for 2017 and 2018. The bar on the left side represents information for 2017. The bar on the right side of each category is for 2018 data.

Working with the California Environmental Protection Agency (Cal EPA) in complying with state standards and performance, there are five main elements to follow. These include creating and following a hazardous materials business plan program (HMBP).

Creating an HMBP, say for the September spill, means assuring that businesses electronically report hazardous material handling, use and storage (volumes greater than 55 liquid gallons, 500 solid pounds, or 200 cubic feet of gases) and develop release response plans.

The department must also coordinate with the local fire departments and other emergency responders on preparedness and response to chemical emergencies, Sipe explained.

If the incident involves an above ground storage tank (AST), such as one at Hamilton Branch, the program involves tracking, permitting and inspecting these kinds of facilities, operations and equipment.

AST also means reviewing and verifying spill prevention control and countermeasure plans are in place and ensuring that tanks are properly managed to minimize the chances of a spill.

An underground storage tank (UST) program requires tracking, permitting and inspecting the facilities and equipment. Ensuring that underground tanks and piping are properly operated, monitored and maintained to avoid risks of spills, leaks or releases are part of the operation.

Environmental Health is also required to inspect construction, repair, upgrades and removal of underground tanks, according to the overview.

Finally, a qualified employee of the department must verify that closed and removed tanks have not leaked and don’t pose a risk to the environment. The underground piping repair at One Stop Gas in Quincy is just one example of where this was done.

Another area of responsibility is the California Accidental Release Program where Environmental Health tracks, permits and inspects facilities that handle certain quantities of acutely hazardous material. Sipe pointed out that chlorine gas or anhydrous ammonia are two examples. Included in this area is the chemical injection system at the wastewater treatment plant at the Chester Public Utilities District.

The department reviews risk management plans and consequences of accidental release.

Sipe also explained about Environmental Health’s hazardous waste generator program. This requires tracking, permitting and inspecting of facilities that generate hazardous wastes including waste oil, solvents and used chemicals. Proper storage, management, handling and disposal of the wastes are included in the department’s responsibilities.

This chart indicated the number of onsite wastewater treatment systems permits and inspections done by Environmental Health’s staff since 2004.

According to Sipe, since Cal EPA implemented the California Electronic Data Reporting, the number of inspections Plumas County Environmental Health has done has increased and so have the violations. “In 2018, Environmental Health completed 138 CUPA [Certified Unified Program Agency] inspections and followed up on over 200 resulting violations.”

One of the increases is seen with underground and above ground storage tanks, according to Sipe. This is “due in large part to the increasing complexity of state regulation,” he said.

Sophisticated electronic monitoring and detection systems are now required for underground tanks, according to Sipe’s overview.

This process often requires an annual calibration and certification from third party vendors, he explained. “Maintaining full compliance can be challenging, especially for ‘mom and pop’ businesses like we have in Plumas County,” Sipe explained. “Environmental Health’s goal is compliance, so we are committed to finding ways to reverse these trends through outreach, education, consultation, and possibly increased inspection frequencies in future years.”

Environmental Health also provides the underground tank inspection service for Sierra County. This is the last year of the contract, Sipe noted.

Drinking water protection

Safe and potable drinking water is one of Environmental Health’s responsibilities.

“During 2018, almost 20 percent of  EH staff time was spent in this program,” according to Sipe.

The department maintains state certification as the Local Primacy Agency for drinking water systems, he explained, and annual evaluations are required by the state to ensure the program meets state and federal requirements.

“Drinking water systems are categorized based on the size of the system and the nature of the population served,” Sipe said.

Community services are generally those that serve year-round community systems serving up to 200 connections. “These systems make up almost half of the regulated inventory,” Sipe explained.

Non-community systems are those that provide water to areas without residential populations. These include parks, campgrounds and workplaces. “These account for the other half of our system inventory.”

Environmental Health’s staff must review and track nearly 2,000 bacteriological reports each year to ensure that water is safe to drink, Sipe explained. Numerous chemical data are also tracked.

When a risk is determined, the system operator is required to issue a boil water advisory. A few of these were issued last year, according to Sipe, but the last time a community had an alert was in 2015.

Since then notices have been issued for the smallest drinking water systems or those serving transient populations including resorts and campgrounds.

While the numbers are low, Sipe said there does seem to be an upward trend in the total advisories issues. “This may be an early indicator of aging infrastructure or other problems, which are making systems more vulnerable to contamination,” he explained. “This trend is something to watch in future years.”

“Our OWTS (on-site wastewater treatment systems) program now includes a groundwater monitoring component to ensure wastewater pathogens like E. coil or nutrients like nitrates are not contaminating drinking water supplies,” Sipe told supervisors.

Currently, all testing results indicate that Plumas County water is safe for the public and the environment. At the end of five years, Sipe said that a comprehensive analysis of water quality will be conducted to give a more accurate picture.

Liquid waste management

It’s part of Environmental Health’s job to make sure that sewage and liquid wastes are properly handled, treated and disposed. Keeping people safe from exposure to this kind of waste is the goal.

“We specify the location, design, construction, installation and repair criteria of all septic or on-site wastewater treatment systems through a permit and inspection program,” Sipe said.

In 2004, Environmental Health issued more than 350 permits. That number fell to fewer than 100 in 2011 and remained relatively steady at approximately 100 permits until 2016. During that year and in 2017, permits issuance increased to 128 and then dropped to 107 last year.

More than half of the OWTS installed in 2018 are chamber or gravel-less design leach fields. “Conventional rock disposal fields make up less than one-fifth of leach field installations, while gravel-less disposal fields make up more than half,” he said.

There seems to be a trend toward community treatment and disposal, according to Sipe’s records. The number of tank-only permits continues to increase. These are found at Grizzly Ranch near Portola and Bailey Creek at Lake Almanor among other places. “Only a handful of engineered and advanced treatment OWTS were permitted last year.”

Last year was the first year of comprehensive reporting under the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board under which Plumas County receives its authority. Reporting information involves performances measures on OWTS failures, complaints, design deficiencies and water quality monitoring.

Of the 107 permits issued last year, 42 were for new construction. The majority of permits were to repair failing systems. Root intrusion or other non-siting causes were the primary reason for system failure. No permits were issued to replace systems because of groundwater intrusion, pollution or other health-based problems. And only two permits required waivers from current installation standards. Waivers involved a setback increase.

Water quality assurance

“Protecting the quality of Plumas County’s lakes, streams and groundwater supplies is a core function of Environmental Health,” Sipe said.

This includes well permits. Improperly located or constructed wells can affect groundwater quality.

In 2007, 80 permits for wells were issued. However, since the economic downturn in 2008, the number has gone from 50 to 30. Wells can be for residential construction, agricultural use, public water supplies or replacement of old wells.

The department also issues permits for drilling wells and soil boring used to assess groundwater pollution, geothermal heat pump borings and geotechnical investigation. Sixteen permits were issued in 2018.

Food safety

This chart includes the number and types of food facilities since 2013. The bar to the far right indicates facilities for 2013. As the bars move right they end at 2018.

“Our food safety program helps protect the public from food-borne illness,” Sipe said.

This is achieved through education, outreach and inspection of retail food facilities throughout the county. Environmental Health has its own registered specialists who inspect, record and correct any violations in food handling practices. The department has the authority to close any facility or business that isn’t complying to help protect the public.

Information on the food safety program, as part of its education and outreach commitment, offers inspection reports for all fixed food facilities. These are available on the county’s food facility inspection page on the website at countyofplumas.com.

Rabies and vector control

Environmental Health staff keeps tabs on diseases such as Hantavirus, the plague and West Nile Virus, but most of the department’s time is spent investigating rabies cases. “We closely coordinate with state, federal and local partners, while performing exposure investigations, environmental surveillance, consultation and other activities,” Sipe said.

Rabies case investigations have decreased between 2016 and 2018, he said. Rabies was last found in Plumas County in 2016. That case was a bat found in Graeagle.

Last year the department tracked and investigated 48 animal contact cases where rabies might be suspected. These were primarily domestic animals (mostly dog cases), but bats were also encountered. “Plumas County is considered endemic for the rabies, meaning that the virus is constantly present in wild animal populations like bats, skunks and foxes,” Sipe said.

The local department also assisted the California Department of Public Health in plague surveillance last year.

Plague is a disease that is spread through infected fleas that bite rodents. Of concern are rodents that tend to live near campgrounds and outdoor recreation areas where people and their pets could be exposed. No plague was detected last year although Plumas County and most of the Sierra Nevada is at high risk of plague.

Recreational health

Bather health and safety is of concern to Environmental Health staff. Ensuring that public pools and spas are safe and uncontaminated is part of its mission. The department provides routine design review, permitting, inspection and technical assistance for the 29 existing pools and spas within Plumas County.

Solid waste

Environmental Health is the local enforcement agency for CalRecycle, according to Sipe. It is responsible for ensuring the proper, safe and sanitary handling of the county’s solid waste.

Environmental Health is responsible for inspecting and permitting landfills, transfer sites and investigating old or abandoned sites within Plumas. The staff is also responsible for investigating complaints concerning litter, debris and illegal dumping. Last year the staff did 39 transfer site inspections, 20 landfill inspections and 29 inspections of closed facilities.

The results of these findings are available at the CalRecycle website at2.calrecycle.ca.gov/SWFacilities/Director/.

Getting paid

Compensation for the staff time and related expenses came up when Plumas County Environmental Health Director Jerry Sipe discussed last September’s extensive spill on Highway 70 near Quincy.

The cause of the two-trailer tanker spill was driver-error, according to Sipe. The man overcorrected and his tanker ended up on its side.

Supervisor Lori Simpson asked Sipe if the county would have to sue the trucking company in order to recoup funds. “That’s a good question,” Sipe responded.

“Who paid for the cleanup?” Supervisor Jeff Engel asked.

Sipe said that the shipper’s insurance paid. But that doesn’t include costs to Environmental Health.

Sipe said that currently there is no local mechanism for billing for services and other related expenses. He said he would look into it.

Sipe said that his employees “literally spent 80 to 100 hours,” on that spill alone last year.

Plumas County Counsel Craig Settlemire said that some areas have emergency services fees built into the expenses that can be recovered. He also recommended that Sipe look into it.

“I’ll bring it back to the board,” Sipe agreed. And then the board could come up with a plan.

Environmental Health isn’t the only local agency that expends resources on incidents. Fire departments, search and rescue and other programs and agencies must come up with funding to meet emergencies. Often it’s just routine operations or calls, but some require additional time and resources.

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