Poop Pole

Costa Mesa unwilling to deal with stinky sewage station

Photo by Matt OttoNear the corner of Wilson Street and Harbor Boulevard in Costa Mesa, the street smells like shit. Conversation stops and people quicken their pace as they push past it, covering their mouths with whatever's available: hands, collars, tissue. Even the occupants of cars stopped at the nearby traffic light roll up their windows as they pull alongside the street, as the smell is easily trapped in vehicles.

The odor—a choking mélange of rotten eggs, road kill and poop—comes from Pump Station 24, a box with a three-foot-tall vented pole that would otherwise go unnoticed unless you have to walk past it. Located in front of 519 W. Wilson St., Pump Station 24 is slightly less than a block off busy Harbor, smack-dab in the center of a bustling sidewalk and only 12 feet from an apartment complex.

Sherry Cooley, who has managed the complex for seven years, says she can not only smell the odor coming out of the pole when she is outside but also whenever she turns on the water inside her unit.

Sergio Gonzalez, owner of El Campeon, the neighborhood carniceria and taqueria, which is less than 30 yards from the sewage pole, says, "You can smell it as you walk by and even in our parking lot. It's
really bad."

The stench often hits the market's front door, and "customers notice the smell all the time," Gonzalez says, especially since, on any given day, the foul fallout from the pipe can linger with a 50-yard radius and seemingly stalk you down the street.

If this sounds like an air-quality violation, there are no phone numbers anywhere on the stations to report foul smells. Call the California EPA and they'll tell you it's not in their jurisdiction and suggest contacting the South Coast Air Quality Management District, where you then learn they can do little and it's "more of a city matter." You may then want to locate the phone number for Tom Fauth, management analyst with the Costa Mesa Public Services Agency's Engineering Department.

Fauth deals with odor issues and general questions about the city's sanitation policies and watches over the city's 20 pump stations. It's his job to ensure the pumps continually move waste through the more than 326 miles of eight-inch-diameter pipe and into the greater Orange County sanitation system. This must all be done without releasing too much hydrogen sulfide, the true cause of the smell that stimulates your gagging reflex.

Fauth works in tandem with Robin B. Hamers, Costa Mesa's Sanitary District manager and engineer. Hamers, who has been the city's engineer since 1981, says that under his watch, "there has never been a single complaint" regarding the odoriferous emanation from the Wilson Street pump, though he does allow that the city would not know of any problems "unless someone phones us and files a complaint."

But Cooley says she contacted the Costa Mesa code enforcement division twice to complain because she "didn't know who to contact."

"I was directed to everyone but who I was supposed to talk to," she said. "Everyone directed me to someone else."

Compared to the city's other pump stations, Station 24 is possibly the one humans come into contact with the most. Nearly all the other stations are set away from main walkways or off sidewalks completely. So why aren't more people complaining about Pump Station 24?

According to Gonzalez, his customers and employees "don't complain because they either don't have the time or know how to." The area around the "poop pole" is predominantly Latino, and the market's customers and most neighborhood residents speak very little English.

Even though there is no phone number on any pump station, and despite Cooley apparently getting the run around, Hamers gives the impression that everyone knows whom to call and how to contact City Hall. "I am sure that if they can pick up a phone to order a pizza, then they can place a call to City Hall," he said.

When brought to Hamers' attention that Pump Station 24 has a vile gaseous odor coming from its vent pipe, he replied, "You are simply, like all reporters down here, trying to take a small issue, turn it into a controversy, and make me look bad." He followed this with a scholarly lecture on the theory of unfair bias.

According to Hamers, the pump station's location and stench is justified given that it has been in the middle of the sidewalk since the early 1950s, well before the apartment complex and Mexican market were built. When asked why the aroma is so vile from this vent pipe and if its stench is the norm, Hamers said, "Well, sewage in general doesn't smell pleasant . . . especially in the summer months, when the heat makes the gas more potent."

According to Hamers, odor-control methods at pumping stations located in high-traffic areas are not necessary since he does not "want to spend the taxpayers' money to treat all of the stations when only a few smell." Why not? Even if it is in the best interest of the public, "the chemical [hydrogen peroxide] is very costly to develop and implement."

Difficult to implement? Underground near each pump, the city stores hydrogen peroxide in two 55-gallon drums, which can be programmed to automatically discharge the chemical into the system at set intervals if and when a complaint is made. If used, the attempt to stop the stench with this easily dispensed chemical is often very effective, and when mixed with the odor-causing hydrogen sulfide, the detergent converts the waste into a water-like form.

Odor controls have been used on only four out of the 20 sites throughout Costa Mesa. Pump stations 12 (Santa Ana/Brentwood), 13 (southwest Irvine/Mesa), 16 (South Coast Plaza) and 39 (21st Street/Newport) are the locations that have been considered rank enough to necessitate treatment. Looking at these stations, one cannot help but notice where they are located. Station 12 is in pleasant neighborhood. Station 13 is three feet from a bus stop and across from the Newport Beach Golf Course. Station 16 is in a South Coast Plaza parking structure. And Station 39 is near a hotel's parking lot, as you head north on Newport Boulevard, away from Triangle Square.

In the future, the smell is likely to decrease since the Costa Mesa Sanitation District is currently working on biological additives and less costly chemicals to use. Still, one has to question why the South Coast Plaza vent pipe is eight feet tall while the El Campeon pipe sits at slightly more than three feet. Hamers again justified the location and height of the pole in front of the market by noting it wasn't absolutely necessary to lengthen the pole since it would then beg the question "How tall is tall enough?"

Although Pump Station 24 goes untreated and reeks daily, Hamers maintains, "We are doing the best we can."

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