Smelly situation: Sewage spill and other problems plague new Alcatraz ferry operator
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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. 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. Last departure at 19:50 is only half full not a normal occurrence."
"I can't remember an incident like that where the park service cancelled the cell-house sweep and let people stay on the island," said Steve Ongerth, who worked for Blue and Gold for almost 10 years.
Yet the sewage problem on Alcatraz goes beyond the growing pains of a new operator. Miller said it's difficult to keep the tanks from overflowing without pumping while passengers are boarding, even though the NPS discourages doing that because of the smell.
"Toilets are high priority for NPS," Miller said. "They said, 'No, you can't pump when passengers are boarding,' but we couldn't keep up with it. We had to keep up with the schedule and keep up with the demands of the sewage."
"The boats were pretty smelly sometimes," Weideman told us. Customer complaints caused the NPS to change the rules about when to pump, which led Blue and Gold to start adding special trips to the island, before and after the tourist runs, just to pump sewage.
Alcatraz Cruises can't keep up either and has spent $300,000 on a new vessel designed to function as a workboat for the fleet pumping sewage off the island and fresh water onto it, removing trash, and delivering special loads that would otherwise require a barge.
"Our goal is to keep the visitor's experience pleasant," said Paul Bishop, director of Marine Operations for Alcatraz Cruises. "That's the whole reason we went to this second boat, to keep sewage away from the passengers."
"Ideally, we want to have Alcatraz completely self-sufficient," Weideman said, within a time frame of "five years optimistically, 10 years realistically." The plan would be to install waterless urinals and composting toilets, use the gray water and manure in the island's historic gardens, power the systems with solar panels, and lube the backup generators with biodiesel.
While technology is a bit of a hindrance at this point, funding is the bigger hurdle. Tickets to Alcatraz just went up three dollars, to $21.75, but the list of deferred maintenance is long, and solar panels would require an additional financial boost from a donor.
With the hopes of drawing open those wallets, the NPS has focused on the "enhanced visitor experience," said Ricardo Perez, superintendent of the island. He envisions revolving exhibits, special events, and facilities offering catered conferences. "We want to be an example for other parks." *