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Otay Water Report Faults Inspectors

Otay Water Report Faults Inspectors

By Ann Krueger — San Diego Union Tribune

Chula Vista — A cascade of errors by Otay Water District inspectors, contractors and others caused treated sewage to flow into the drinking water of an Eastlake business park instead of drinking water, according to a district report.  The report concludes that Otay inspectors – including one who admitted soliciting bribes on other projects – didn’t follow regulations or missed signs that pipes weren’t properly connected during construction of the Fenton Business Center on Fenton Street.

The report will be presented to the Otay board today, along with an update on steps taken to ensure a similar incident won’t happen again, General Manager Mark Watton said.  The water district has been investigating what went wrong at the business park since Aug. 17 tests from a private laboratory showed the tap water was recycled – treated sewage intended for irrigation, not drinking.

Otay officials say a pipe carrying recycled water was mistakenly connected to a meter for drinking water two years ago. The engineer on the project, Irvine-based Hunsaker and Associates, submitted “inaccurate, incomplete and confusing” construction plans, the district said. The plans Otay received did not show recycled water pipes, although grading plans submitted to the city of Chula Vista showed the pipes.

An Otay inspector should have noted the inconsistency in his inspection records and asked to see plan revisions, the report said. The inspector is identified only as “Inspector A” in the report. Watton confirmed the inspector was William Cooper, who resigned in August 2004 after he was charged with accepting one bribe and soliciting another on Chula Vista residential projects. Cooper pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a year in a work-furlough program and three years’ probation. The report noted that Civil Constructors Corp. of El Cajon, a contractor on the Fenton project, was the same company involved in the Cooper case.

Officials at Hunsaker and Associates and Civil Constructors Corp. could not be reached yesterday.  “Do I wish our inspector would have highlighted that (problem at Fenton)? Absolutely,” Watton said. “Is it sensational in the fact that our inspector was arrested for accepting bribes on another project? I don’t think so.”

Because Cooper was no longer working for the district, a consultant served as the inspector during a final walk-through in December 2004. Cooper’s records were “very poor,” the report said.  The project was later accepted by the district. An inspection supervisor didn’t ensure the construction records reflected what was actually built.

Another Otay inspector caught one mistake but made a key error in the treated sewage mix-up. The inspector discovered a drinking water pipe incorrectly connected to a recycled water meter in July 2005. He had that meter replaced.  But that same day, he ordered a new meter for another pipe without checking whether the pipe carried recycled or drinking water, the report said. The meter for drinking water was placed on a recycled water line.

Watton said disciplinary action is being considered against Otay employees who didn’t follow procedures.  The district is focusing now on preventing a similar incident, Watton said. It is making sure recycled-water connections are more clearly marked, with purple designating the attachments between a purple recycling pipe and the meter. Otay employees will also now test the water at the meter and at a new customer’s tap, he said.

In the meantime, employees in the business park are visiting their doctors. Joe Padilla, who owns a computer repair store, said that although his water was declared safe Aug. 24, Otay employees returned to his store last week and replaced his faucets. He said he’s not sure whether to drink the water.  “They need to be a little more clear on what the situation is. Is it safe or not safe?” he said.  The district said it fixed the problem, and state officials declared the water safe in late August.

The case would go on to settle for 2.28 million dollars.