ran the headline: it stretched all the way across the front page
of the November 28 San Francisco Bay View. The story opened: “Just
before Thanksgiving, as a construction crew was boring a tunnel to carry
power lines under Islais Creek to serve Muni’s long awaited Third Street
light rail, the sewer main that delivers 80 million gallons of waste to
the bay per day collapsed.” An accompanying editorial by publisher
Willie Ratcliff observed, “This is a bad way to start construction of
the Muni’s long awaited Third Street light rail line.”
complete story, as expanded by the Bay View staff, go to the paper’s
The ramifications of the incident are endless, entailing community
involvement in planning, jobs for Hunters Point residents, the city’s
waste management and its effect on residents in the southeast part of
the city, and environmental and historical preservation. It’s a story
that will continue to play out over many months to come.
Here’s how it all began, in an article published on November 24 by
San Francisco IndyMedia (sf.indymedia.org).
Sewer main collapse destroys Muwekma Ohlone Park, Islais Creek
near Hunters Point
San Francisco Muni light rail construction breaks a sewage main
which normally delivers 80 million gallons per day of secondary effluent
to the bay. A disastrous mess results: The park floods, a sinkhole
appears and gobbles trees and backhoes, sewage pours into the channel,
the community is devastated, and some serious questions are exposed
regarding development in the southeast quadrant of our city.
Construction crews for the San Francisco PUC have been working for
months on installing “duct banks” under Islais Creek to bring power,
communication, and data cables to the north side of the creek east of
Third Street as part of the preparation for the future Muni Third Street
light rail project. The Muni maintenance yard is being built near Pier
80, between 25th and Cesar Chavez east of Illinois. For some reason the
Hunters Point Power Plant is the source of electricity. As construction
worked northward, on Sunday or Monday Muni subcontractors inside the
Muwekma Ohlone Sanctuary Park drilled crosswise under a five- or
six-foot sewer main that heads toward the bay to place a black tube
which will hold the lines. Then they went home.
On Monday or Tuesday a local resident saw spurts of muck shooting out
of the earth leaving volcano-like one- or two-foot mounds of earth over
the area. Neighbors called in reports. Following the complaints,
emergency repair crews arrived and have been working day and night since
Tuesday. The PUC, DPW, Water Department, Port of San Francisco, Sewage
Department, SF Muni, welders, laborers, consultants, insurance reps, and
several permits officers came as well.
The sluice gate on the bay was closed to prevent backflow. They shut
off the sewage pump. The flow, which normally empties underwater several
hundred yards out into the bay where it is diffused and mixed with bay
water, was diverted to another line that outflows the 80 million gallons
of sewage into Islais Creek west of Third. (This is their emergency
A diver who went into the damaged pipe for repairs on Tuesday
discovered the tunnel had collapsed. Removal of the land supporting the
huge sewer main had caused shifting, then a crack and leakage. The bay
fill land had liquefied and sewage spilled out. A worker who parked on
the pavement toppled down into the hole atop his backhoe, nearly losing
his life. Park activists converged and attempted to save their tools and
The leak has most likely stopped, but the toxic spill has ruined the
Muwekma Ohlone Park that Islais Creek activists had developed with time
and effort and love. A sinkhole 20 ft. deep by 60 ft. long by 50 ft.
wide and a field of mud now replaces what used to be flowers, trees,
creatures, and community.
The park was the result of years of work on land traditionally
occupied by the Ohlone tribe. It had become a sanctuary for native
plants, birds, and community groups, a refuge of green surrounded by the
ships and towering industrial machinery of the Port of San Francisco.
“Guerrilla gardeners” maintained the site for eight years with the
permission of the port. Using a USDA urban partnership grant they won a
year ago, they master-planned habitat restoration of the land and
intertidal areas, and outlined environmental education programs. This
past year groups such as the SF Conservation Corps, SLUG, the Wildlife
Habitat Council, the Living Art Community and many Bayview and Islais
groups and individuals undertook a massive cleanup, restoration, and
support of the area.
A habitat survey turned up four or five protected species, plus one
unique vertebrate never before encountered, which was enthusiastically
documented by the California Academy of Sciences.
In a ceremony in August indigenous residents of San Francisco donated
special earth. The group held art and cultural events last summer,
including a Native American film festival in May. It planned a healing
pole and a history placard, and received two other significant grants.
Emergency cleanup crews are still frantically working day and night
to remediate the situation. Eighty million gallons of secondary (post
treatment plant) effluent went through the main and now goes into Islais
Creek. There is a $15/gallon fine on the books, reflecting the
seriousness of this type of spill. In fact, the cost of the clean-up may
pale next to the impending fine.
On Thursday, Thanksgiving Day, workers welded bands on the sewer
pipe, awaiting a custom gasket which was being flown out from the east
coast to enable them to re-pressurize and test the main. Muni talked of
putting concrete around the pipe on Monday.
What will happen now, what should happen? Who is going to pay, who
will restore the park? “How do you put a value on life?” says David
Erickson, project facilitator for the sanctuary and an eight-year
participant. He contemplated the displaced frogs hopping around on the
upheaved earth and equipment, the birds, the earthworms. “It takes a
lifetime to watch a tree grow,” he said of the uprooted eight-year-old
trees. “It looks like Kandahar (Afghanistan) — a huge hole in the
The city crew said they would try to save some of the trees. A Muni
engineering supervisor assured him that they’re “not going to walk away
from this” and promised nice new topsoil. “First I felt shock, then
anger.” said Erickson. “Now I hope some good will come out of it.”
The disaster opened up a whole new set of ominous questions. Why were
the transmission lines being run to the Hunters Point power plant, which
supposedly is to be closed, instead of running to the much closer
Potrero plant? Why was the city drilling under a sewage main on fill
with a high risk of liquefaction? Where are the Environment Impact
Reports for this work and for the duct banks for the line under the
creek? It’s even possible that they weren’t sure there was a sewage
outfall above the drilling. Perhaps Sophie Maxwell and City Hall should
call for hearings to bring some sunshine to bear on what’s going on.
And at the same time, in the same area, why is the Illinois Street
railroad bridge suddenly (via pressure and money from Catellus) being
transformed into a two- or four-lane intermodal (with rail)? A
north-south corridor for huge trucks to travel from the asphalt and
concrete plant across the channel at Pier 90 to serve Mission Bay
developments? Threatening to cut through Illinois Street alongside
residences and the sanctuary, it will destroy the loading docks, the
outrigger canoe club, the shoreline, and intertidal habitat. Neighbors
are organizing to stop the looming threat of traffic and pollution to
this unique corner of the city.
To get involved contact
Chronological photos by David Erickson and Maurice Campbell are
show the progress of the damage.
For photos of the site before the incident, go to
For more information on the park and more pictures, see