Jerry Sipe shared a bit of information with members of the Plumas County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, March 3, “If you can see it; smell it; taste it; we inspect it.”
As director of Plumas County’s Department of Environmental Health, Sipe shared a little humor before launching into his department’s 2019 annual report.
“Promoting an environment that enhances human health and well-being is the foundation of Environmental Health,” Sipe explained in his report.
To reach the department’s goals, Sipe said that services are generally grouped 10 core program areas: hazardous materials management, drinking water protection, food safety, liquid waste management, solid waste management, water quality protection, land use and development, rabies and vector control, recreational health, and housing and institution safety.
Risk factors, state mandates and the service needs of the community help determine how much time is spent on each program.
Hazardous materials management
Environmental Health’s most time-consuming program, requiring 32 percent of the staff’s time, is hazardous materials management. Under this program the department is the Certified Unified Program Agency (CUPA) for the county.
“We permit, inspect and enforce a variety of hazardous materials and hazardous waste regulations under certification by the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA),” Sipe said.
CalEPA evaluates Environmental Health’s program every three years to make sure it complies with state standards. Evaluations for 2019 had a few minor areas that needed corrections, he said.
Last year, Environmental Health completed 153 CUPA related inspections. These are up from 138 in 2018.
The department also tracks the number of violations found in each CUPA inspection. “Trend data for the last four years shows that the number of violations per inspection continues increasing for both hazardous waste and business plan elements,” Sipe said. “The increasing trend for underground tanks appears to have tapered off at just over four violations per inspection.”
Sipe said there is a trend toward installing aboveground tanks and the violations also continue. “This is likely due to increasing state emphasis on above ground tank compliance and the frequency of site inspections occurring only once every three years,” Sipe said.
Environmental Health’s approach is to reach people through outreach and education rather than issuing notices of violations or other enforcement approaches, Sipe said.
Site cleanups are one of the department’s emergency response duties when it comes to hazardous materials management. Spills along or on highways and roadways within the county can occur suddenly during a traffic incident.
Last year the department responded to five hazardous materials incidents, Sipe pointed out. This was approximately a third of the number seen in 2018 when 17 incidents were reported.
“We work with the responsible party, land owners, state agencies, and others to ensure cleanup is timely and effective,” Sipe explained. “Fortunately, we did not have any significant releases in 2019.”
Drinking water protection
Environmental Health staff spent 17 percent of its time on drinking water systems, Sipe told supervisors.
Making sure that residents and guests have safe and potable drinking water is a major function of Environmental Health.
As part of the drinking water program, the department maintains its state certification as the Local Primacy Agency for smaller drinking water systems, those that serve fewer than 200 connections.
This process is evaluated by the State Water Resources Control Board annually to ensure it meets state and federal oversight requirements, according to the annual report for 2019. “EH staff serves as a local resource for water system operators, helping ensure that our drinking water remains the highest quality possible,” Sipe said.
Last year, the department partnered with the California Rural Water Association and offered water system operator training in Quincy for local water purveyors.
Drinking water systems are categorized based on the size and nature of the population served.
Community systems usually serve year-round residents. State and local small systems serve up to 15 connections and small community systems serve up to 200 connections. These systems make up about half of the regulated inventory, Sipe explained.
Non-community systems provide water to areas without residential populations. These include parks, resorts, campgrounds and workplaces. There are 82 systems that account for half of the water system inventory.
“To ensure the water provided by all these systems remains safe to drink, we review and track nearly 2,000 bacteriological reported each year,” Sipe said. “In addition, we also track numerous chemical data for each of these systems.”
When there’s an immediate risk factor detected, then the system operator is required to issue a Boil Water Advisory. There are few of these issued compared to the number of samples taken and these indicate how safe Plumas County’s drinking water quality is.
Liquid waste management
Sewage and liquid waste proper handling, treatment and disposal are part of the 10 categories Environmental Health is responsible for. “This includes preventing human exposure to contaminated wastewater as well as preventing contamination of surface and groundwater,” Sipe explained. “We specify the location, design, construction, installation and repair criteria of all septic or on-site wastewater treatment systems [OWTS] through a permit and inspection program.”
In 2004, the department issued more than 350 permits. That number continually declined until its lowest number of permits in 2011 with approximately 75. Since that time, the number of permits issued has climbed with a few exceptions until last year when it reached approximately 125.
Of the permits issued last year, 60 of them were for new construction, and 66 were issued for repairs for failing systems, according to statistics from Environmental Health. The majority of the systems failed due to root intrusion. Groundwater intrusion, pollution or other health concerns were not seen. Only one permit was issued to replace an antiquated system.
“Our OWTS program also includes a groundwater monitoring component to ensure wastewater pathogens like E. coli or nutrients like nitrates are not contaminating drinking water supplies,” Sipe said.
Water quality assurance
Another of Environmental Health’s responsibilities is to ensure lakes, streams and groundwater supplies are protected. The permit process ensures that wells are properly located so they cannot affect groundwater quality.
The highest number of permits was seen in 2007 with more than 75. In 2019 that number was down to 37.
While the department tracks residential, agriculture and public water supply well permits, it also tracks the purpose of each permit. This is due to drought related impacts, none of which were found last year.
“Finally, we also issue and track permits for other borings or excavations that pose a risk to contaminating groundwater such as monitoring wells or geotechnical soil borings,” Sipe said. Sixteen permits for these activities were issued last year.
Water quality concerns only take up about 5 percent of the staff’s time.
Time-wise, food safety takes up the second highest amount of time for Environmental Health, according to a chart Sipe developed. “Our food safety program helps protect the public from food-borne illness,” he said.
Food safety relies on education, outreach and inspection of retail food facilities throughout the county. The department uses compliance procedures as established by the California Retail Food Code.
Registered environmental health specialists inspect, record and correct violations of safe food handling practices. They also have the authority to close facilities to protect the public.
Environmental Health’s specialists are responsible for large restaurants with a seating of more than 25 and a food preparation area greater than 500 square feet; small restaurants; non-prep facilities, including convenience markets; cottage foods establishments where food is prepared in home kitchens, and mobile or temporary facilities for events such as the High Sierra Music Festival and the county fair.
Cottage foods or mom and pop are continuing to do well. The number of fixed facilities showed slight, but steady growth during the last six years, according to Sipe.
“Every food facility that prepares, handles or serves potential hazardous foods must have an individual who is certified in food safety,” Sipe said. This certification must be renewed every five years.
Last year, Environmental Health became authorized to proctor online Serv-Safe exams for local purveyors. “Providing this service to customers has been very popular as shown by the increase in the number of exams administered this past year.”
Rabies and vector control
“Our rabies and vector control program protects the public from exposure to vector-borne diseases such as Hantavirus, plague and West Nile Virus, but the majority of our time in this program is spent on rabies case investigations,” Sipe said.
The department works with state, federal and local partners to perform exposure investigations, environmental surveillance, consultation and other activities.
Rabies case investigations and testing increased last year. The department tracked and investigated 56 animal cases for potential rabies in 2019. Most cases involved domestic dogs, but bats are another concern. “In fact, the last animal that tested positive for rabies in Plumas County was a bat found in Graeagle in 2016,” Sipe said.
That bat was found in July when Graeagle is at its busiest, he told supervisors.
A Portola woman is undergoing the rabies shot series after being bit by a golden lab that was allowed to run the neighborhood. Two dogs are detained, one at the Plumas County Animal Shelter and another at the owners’ residence.
Plumas County is considered endemic for rabies. That means the virus is always present in wild animal populations including bats, skunks and foxes. Rabies is a significant health hazard, Sipe points out in his report. The director of the California Department of Public Health has declared all 58 counties in California rabies areas every year since 1987.
Land use is usually done in cooperation with the county’s planning and building services, engineering and public works departments. “Our role is to evaluate the foreseeable Environmental Health implications of proposed development projects,” Sipe said.
In 2019, the department reviewed 22 land use applications. Almost half of them were for lot line adjustment applications. The department was also involved in the negative declaration review for the new CHP facility in East Quincy.
Last year the department dealt with the blue-green algae bloom at Willow Lake next to the Pacific Crest Trail. It’s important to keep hikers and others out of it, Sipe said.
There’s another site at the north part of the Lake Almanor causeway that Environmental Health is watching, Sipe said. If the algae progresses it could impact recreation on the lake.
Duties include checking swimming pools and spas; currently there are 29 in Plumas.
Solid waste responsibilities generally take up about 4 percent of the department’s time.
As the Local Enforcement Agency it is responsible for ensuring proper, safe and sanitary handling of the area’s solid waste. “We inspect and permit county landfills, transfer sites, and investigate old or abandoned sites for hazards,” Sipe said.
Last year the staff did 39 inspections of transfer sites, 20 landfill inspections and 29 inspections of closed facilities.
The staff also investigates complaints about litter, debris and illegal dumping.