Storm water at Mule Creek State Prison.

California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations (CDCR) has had more than 50 industrial waste spills into Mule Creek since 2006. Nearly 13.5 million gallons of storm water, grey water, sewage and industrial waste carrying Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and Semivolatile Organic Compounds (SVOCs) spilled into Mule Creek over the past four months.

There are more questions than answers or solutions from the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB) that regulates the CDCR and Mule Creek State Prison (MCSP) facility.

Ledger Dispatch question:

It has been suggested the RWQCB illegally granted the CDCR a non-traditional Phase II municipal separate storm water system (MS4) General Permit for MCSP in their March 24, 2019, meeting to allow the discharge of contaminants despite commingling of the domestic, prison industry, and storm water sewer systems.

RWQCB response:

“MCSP was designated a non-traditional Phase II municipal separate storm water system (MS4) so the prison could be enrolled under the State Water Board’s Phase II MS4 General Permit. This was not to allow the MCSP to discharge non-storm water discharges to Mule Creek.

Rather, due to the concerns identified by Board staff and the public that there were possible commingling of the sewer and storm water systems, the MCSP was put under the Phase II MS4 General Permit so there would be another regulatory mechanism to get CDCR to correct the problems with their sewer and storm water systems,” said Kari Holmes, P.E., Supervising Water Resources Compliance and Enforcement Program of the RWQCB. “The Phase II MS4 General Permit does not allow illicit non-storm water discharges, such as from the sewer or industrial sources. The Phase II MS4 General Permit puts the CDCR on a path to come into compliance with all aspects of the Permit. During the current phase of CDCR’s storm water program development, CDCR is required to develop best management practices and identify/remove illicit discharges into the storm water system. An annual report outlining the actions taken by CDCR to comply with the General Permit is due this October.”

David Anderson, one of the victims who fell seriously ill when exposed to contaminants while installing a culvert at MCSP, disagrees.

Anderson’s response:

“The RWQCB doesn’t answer the question of why the MS4 designation was granted illegally. They claim the MS4 permit was not granted to allow CDCR to discharge illicit material into Mule Creek, but the reality is that is exactly what has been happening. She is tentative in stating that the public and staff referred to “possible” commingling of wastes into the storm water. It was stated unequivocally by staff that storm water and sewage was commingled. Testing, even recent testing, shows ongoing commingling,” said Anderson. “Holmes states correctly that the MS4 classification does not allow sewage in the storm water discharge. How does she reconcile the presence of industrial wastes and sewage in the storm water flow identified over the past two years with the MS4 limitation? Reports have been issued in August 2018 and October 2019. Does the RWQCB expect anything different in October 2020? Enough is enough.”

Ledger Dispatch question:

Another major concern is that no one really knows what is in the commingled cocktail of VOCs and SVOCs being dumped into Mule Creek. What are the contaminants?

RWQCB’s response:

“The 14 February 2018 13267 Order and associated workplans required CDCR to collect data to characterize the stormwater. The Regional Board needed to impart a regulatory mechanism to require investigations, repairs, and ongoing inspections and maintenance. The MS4 program is designed to adequately characterize the discharge and implement best management practices to eliminate illicit discharges,” said Holmes. “In regards to human health, Regional Board staff has sampled seven nearby domestic wells’ water quality. This data was given to the county to determine if there was a risk to public health.”

Amador County Public Health declined to comment at this time.

Anderson’s response:

“Most residents of Amador County probably are not aware of what the full spectrum of contaminants is being spewed into Mule Creek or leeching into the ground. When the RWQCB advised me of the levels of contamination myself and my crew were wallowing in, I was furious,” said Anderson. “I immediately wrote to the contract managers demanding a full report of the amount of variety of pathogens and toxins in the water. To date, I have received nothing. I made the same request of the RWQCB and was advised that the only test is for standard list of chemicals and not for any pathogens or pharmaceuticals. I’d sure like to know. They have cross contamination, sewage, industrial waste, all mixing a deadly cocktail that gets spilled whenever CDCR wants into Mule Creek and it is lethal, if not deadly. Working at the MCSP site my work crew and I fell ill with muscle aches, joint pain, fatigue, dizziness and disorientation, cough, wheezing, severe mental irritation, visual impairment of color sensitivity, severe headaches, and chronic nosebleeds. But no, it’s not a public health issue. It’s not dangerous. Is anyone worried? You should be. You should be.”

Ledger Dispatch question:

Some pumps at MCSP discharge collected stormwater into the CDCR’s onsite wastewater treatment plant, but is that facility equipped to deal with the industrial waste and contaminants being spilled into Mule Creek?

RWQCB’s response:

“The onsite wastewater treatment plant at MCSP is designed to treat domestic waste, which does not include industrial constituents such as VOCs, said Holmes. “The current Waste Discharge Requirements written in 2015 are based on available data of the industrial waste streams, and allow for the discharge of both domestic and industrial waste into the system and subsequently the wastewater treatment plant. A 13260 Order for a Report of Waste Discharge (RWD) was issued on 18 November 2019. This Order required CDCR to submit a RWD describing how they will address treatment for industrial waste streams, if applicable. The RWD also requires CDCR to address their disposal capacity in the designated land application areas and therefore Regional Board permitting staff are working with CDCR to ensure all necessary information is provided.”

Anderson’s response:

“Wow! Just, wow! CDCR’s sewage plant is not designed to treat industrial wastes, which Ms. Holmes acknowledges. Also, the MCIC displaced some of the spray fields used to discharge effluent. That was known to CDCR before the MCIC was built. The result has been an undersized effluent disposal area. These facts are undisputed and are not at issue. How the RWQCB is working with CDCR to provide ‘information’ is not clear. The issue is not information but compliance. How is CDCR going to augment their sewage plant or their spray fields to become compliant? Holmes creates confusion when she states that the RWQCB is expecting a revised RWD, ‘if applicable.’ The Board issued an Order for a Report of Waste Discharge based on an inspection of the facility in July of 2019 which itemizes many problems. All of these problems have existed for several years and have been known to the Board,” say Anderson. “The City of Ione should acknowledge the opportunity to press for the tertiary treatment plant CDCR screwed you out of when the plant was promised but never built. You have a valid contract to this day and have never acted to enforce it. This is years, decades of dumping into Mule Creek and filling it with industrial waste.”

Ledger Dispatch question:

The RWQCB had said last week that “based on flow data collected during the previous two summers the pumps are adequately sized to handle dry weather flows.” So, if it is a dry summer, why are there flows at all? Where’s it come from? How is it handled?

RWQCB’s response:

“Based on flow data from the stormwater system and the irrigation system, a large portion of the dry weather volume occurs when the irrigation system is on during dry months. CDCR has reported that the irrigation system has multiple leaks, and speculates that irrigation water leaking and infiltrating into the stormwater system through cracks and defects in the pipes is the primary contributor to those flows,” said Holmes. “Board staff are still evaluating contaminants that have been detected in the stormwater system to determine if evidence exists that an indirect cross connection has been formed in one or more locations.”

Anderson’s response:

“This is insanity at its best,” said Anderson. “There are acknowledged cracks and defects in the storm water system, hundreds of them, outlined in CDCR’s own report. There is abundant evidence of the origin of the contaminants as well as the various constituents of the discharge. The RWQCB’s own staff has said there is commingling of sewer systems. Read the RWQCB’s compliance issues with the current Water Discharge Requirements (WDRs) in their certified letter to MCSP Warden, Patrick Covello, on December 9, 2019. Oh that’s right, you can’t because it mysteriously never happened, and in fact, can’t be found on the RWQCB’s website. Fortunately, I gave the Ledger Dispatch a copy for safe keeping.”

The certified letter outlines two primary issues, here are excerpts from the December 9, 2019 Order to Warden Covello:

1. The current WDRs and Monitoring and Reporting Program (MRP) do not require any specific monitoring of flow or quality of the industrial waste streams. Industrial contaminants have been detected in the wastewater effluent, stormwater, and groundwater. The treatment plant is not designed to treat for these constituents.

2. The facility has also lost some of its spray irrigation fields due to an expansion of the prison in 2015. The Discharger has not yet replaced this lost disposal capacity, which may have led to overloading the remaining spray fields.

The RWQCB completed an inspection of MCSP on July 25, 2019. From prison industries (coffee roasting, meat packing and smokehouse, processing, storage, textile operations, welding, carpentry, janitorial training ,laundry, meal packaging, the RWQCB observed cleansers, detergents, solvents, chemicals as well as waste chemicals that are “likely contributing to the industrial waste constituents that have been detected in the wastewater system, storage reservoir, stormwater system, and in the groundwater.”

Despite several hot, dry weather months, “a significant amount of stagnant water in the creek and surrounding lowlands,” including a spill that “had occurred on 13 July 2019, but only 5,000 gallons of effluent had been reported to have been discharged into the creek. The amount of water in the seasonally dry Mule Creek far exceeded the reported spill volume.”

The online missing report also states that in order to properly treat these waste constituents, industrial and domestic waste streams must either be segregated and treated individually with the appropriate technology, or the existing WWTP must be upgraded to treat for all the constituents in the combined waste stream.

Anderson’s response:

“The County of Amador and the City of Ione have skin in this game. They should be ashamed of their part in this debacle. You have a contract for the CDCR to provide a tertiary sewage treatment plant properly sized to treat the sewage flows as well as the industrial flows. You have done nothing to make it happen. Instead you have allowed CDCR to contaminate Mule Creek, damage the groundwater, and hurt Amador County and its future,” said Anderson. “It’s time for another agency to step up and examine all the players in this game. This should preferably be the Federal Environmental Protection Agencies and the Environmental and Natural Resources Department of the Department of Justice.”

Editor’s note: The complete and full missing certified letter from December 9, 2019 is posted as a link with this story on our website at