Smelly situation - Page 2

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

12, out of time sequence with the rest of the day.

Christensen says there was a spill of approximately 20 gallons of salt water that day from a broken pipe on the dock, which he thinks is what the log entry refers to. "They got their facts wrong," he said of Cooke and another person who saw the spill. "Why didn't this person tell the interpretive site supervisor and say, 'This is what I saw'? Our policy is don't cover it up. Contact me right away."

Cooke told us it wasn't just water. "All I saw was a spreading stain on the surface of the concrete outside the sewage tanks. Then there was some boat crew with mops and hoses cleaning it up. They didn't look like they were cleaning it up because they wanted to. We went over to have a sniff, and it certainly wasn't just water."

A captain on a passing ferryboat from another company also saw a spill similar to what Cooke described. Witnessed from 100 feet offshore, it seemed significant enough to the captain to report to the state's Environmental Protection Agency.

"I saw a lot of liquid on the concrete, and a man was up on top of the sewage tanks. It was very obvious to me sewage had overflowed," said the captain, who requested anonymity because of his position. The veteran captain, with 30 years' experience driving boats for the Coast Guard and in the Bay Area, used to operate the ferry to Alcatraz when it was run by the Red and White Fleet and is knowledgeable about the demands of the island's sensitive sewage situation.

"The instructions of my company are I'm to report any spills," said the captain, who felt obligated to make the call to the port captain for his company and later filed a report with the EPA. "I wrote 50 gallons in my report, but it was more than that. There was a lot of water," he said.

Whether or not it was 20, 50, or 500 gallons, other NPS log entries on that day and several others since Alcatraz Cruises took over indicate the sewage alarm has gone off, which it does when the tanks are too full. There are also regular notations of the bathrooms being out of service, which is a chronic problem that occurred during Blue and Gold's tenure as well.

Michael Chee of the water board told us 20 gallons is pretty minimal. "We can't really concern ourselves too much with that," Chee said. He did, however, mention ongoing spills are small indications of a larger problem.

"In this instance there's a possibility we could look into how they're managing it and decide if it's the best way," Chee said. "There are a lot of things we could look into [for] the collections systems in terms of proper size."

Is a 6,000 gallon tank that has to be pumped several times a day an adequate system for a dozen toilets that catch the offal of 1.3 million visitors a year?

"At least half the day you're handling sewage," said Andy Miller, a captain with Blue and Gold for 17 years who used to drive the Alcatraz route. "It's definitely an issue that experienced guys kept up with. It's part of the daily routine of driving the boat."

Miller said it can add a lively element to the tight, half-hour turnaround schedule that breaks down to 10 minutes loading people, 10 minutes underway, and 10 minutes unloading people, with little extra time to pump shit from the ever-filling tanks.

"We knew where to finesse the schedule and finagle a couple of minutes. We knew how to keep the company out of trouble," Miller said.

Managing that tight schedule appears to be causing some problems for the new operator. The logs listed some hard landings on the island by the new ferry drivers. They also show boats not arriving for scheduled departures Oct. 14, resulting in tourists left on the island too long. According to NPS log entries, the afternoon was "chaos" and "many night tourists leave early because of the confusion.