Smelly situation

Smelly situation: Sewage spill and other problems plague new Alcatraz ferry operator

Trips to Alcatraz Island have become a little more unpredictable since Sept. 25, when a new contractor assumed the ferry service from Blue and Gold Fleet, which did the job for the past 12 years. Since the changeover the new company, Alcatraz Cruises (a subsidiary of Hornblower Yachts), has endured regular protests and has had a handful of minor maritime mishaps.

A Guardian review of operation logs kept by the National Park Service (NPS), which runs the island, shows some less than graceful landings on the docks, a few scheduling snafus that stranded confused tourists on the island, and a sewage spill that had to be reported by outsiders.

Such incidents aren't uncommon for a company growing into a new job, but they're all being closely scrutinized by the union captains and deckhands who were displaced by the nonunion Alcatraz Cruises. They see the incidents as proof that more of their experienced crew should have been hired to operate the boats.

"Sewage alarms have been going off, and there have been spills," said Steve Ongerth, standing with a picket sign outside Pier 33, where Alcatraz Cruises now runs the ferry system and where workers with the Inland Boatmen's Union and International Longshore and Warehouse Union have been protesting for the past 10 weeks. "If they'd hired us, who know what we're doing, that wouldn't have happened."

Like many other national parks, Alcatraz functions with something akin to the hiker's credo "Leave no trace." Part of the service contract includes pumping thousands of gallons of raw sewage a day and transporting it across the bay to deposit in the city's system.

There were three reported sewage spills on Alcatraz Island in September and October. Two were less than 500 gallons, one prior to the changeover and one shortly after. They were reported in a timely manner to the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, according to NPS spokesperson Rich Weideman.

Another, however, was not initially reported because the NPS contends it was less than 20 gallons and doesn't require paperwork until the annual Sanitary Sewer Overflow Report is due to the water board in March.

Sources who spoke to the Guardian, however, contend the spill was much more than 20 gallons and took it upon themselves to start a paper trail when it appeared the NPS wasn't going to act. "Sewage spill on dock approx 16:30 Al. Cruis. Staff hose down area — flush waste into bay," an entry in the official NPS log kept on the island reads, initialed by "DC."

"I don't know who that is," Jim Christensen, NPS maintenance engineer, told the Guardian. "And we don't know anything about this spill."

"There was no spill in October," said Ray Katsanes, the sole NPS maintenance staffer who works on the island daily.

Christensen said only NPS rangers and volunteers routinely log entries and nobody has those initials. Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy staff who lead interpretive tours are also on the island but aren't a part of systems operations. Christensen didn't check that staff list, but the Guardian did and found DC.

"I wrote that in the log because I couldn't tell what was happening, but I could see it," Dan Cooke, an interpreter for the conservancy, told us. Cooke has led night tours on the island since 1999 and was waiting with other conservancy staff on the dock for that night's tour to arrive when he saw the spill occur.

"I thought to myself, 'Someone better write this down,' " Cooke said, when it seemed no real record was noted of the spill. He added the entry to the logbook at a later time, and it appears in the margin of the top of the page for Oct.