Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2009 | When the air becomes still around the bay near downtown San Diego, Richard Zizian awaits the waft of rotten eggs.
“You could come out of your door and smell it in your hallway,” Zizian said.
The smell has become familiar over the past few months to the 60-year-old Zizian, who was the first resident to move into the Grande North luxury condominium complex off Pacific Highway in August 2005. It wasn’t until more recently that he learned the stench, which pervades areas in and around the Grande, could be more than a nuisance.
A gas from sewer pipes called hydrogen sulfide causes the odor. Sewage produces the gas naturally and at low levels it doesn’t stink. But greater concentrations of hydrogen sulfide smell like rotten eggs. At its highest levels hydrogen sulfide, though at that point odorless, can be deadly.
The levels are too high at Grand North, and are causing health risks to go up and property values to go down, according to a lawsuit filed by the building’s homeowners association against the city and the Grande’s Canadian-based developer Bosa earlier this month.
“We know that the HOA did nothing wrong, so it’s either the city or Bosa or both,” said Andrew Berman, the association’s lawyer said in an interview. “We believe both are responsible.”
The city this month installed a fix that should eliminate the most dire health threats posed by the gas. But Berman claims the city’s slow response to the problem exacerbated public health concerns. And questions remain about how the problem began.
The Grande North’s neighbor, the Grande South, has experienced similar problems, a Bosa official said. However, mayoral spokeswoman Rachel Laing said the city hasn’t received complaints similar to the Grande North’s.
After Bosa advised the Grande North homeowners association about corrosion in the development’s pipes and a potential hydrogen sulfide problem, the association asked an occupational and environmental health consultant to test gas levels, Berman said.
The results were alarming. The consultant found average concentration in one area almost twice the level where hydrogen sulfide could become lethal with peak concentrations in various areas at, near or above that level, according to his report. Those results are also far above Occupational Safety and Health Administration requirements for maximum continued exposure.
It’s a substantial public health issue if the pipes fail and hydrogen sulfide escapes, Berman said.
“This is a dangerous and defective condition and needs an immediate and permanent repair,” Berman wrote in a Sept. 9 letter to the city to which he attached the test results.
Since then, the city has installed a mechanism that will cut the amount of gas being released and reduce the odors if the city’s sewer line was the problem, said Chief Deputy City Attorney Thomas Zeleny.
“I am told that the City’s sewer main was replaced several years ago and is in very good condition,” Zeleny wrote in a Sept. 16 letter to Berman. “Odors are a natural byproduct of any operating sewer system, and are not necessarily an indication that the sewer system is somehow deficient or defective.”
The same day Berman wrote his letter to the city, he filed suit against the city and Bosa. The problem is compounded when hydrogen sulfide gases coming from the city’s main sewer line along Pacific Highway mix with moisture to create sulfuric acid that is corroding the Grande’s cast iron sewer pipes, Berman said. That could increase the chances the lines could fail, he added.
Berman said the sewage system doesn’t comply with requirements for an “odorless” connection between the Grande and the main line as outlined in the city’s sewer design guide.
Bosa blames the city. Eric Martin, a company vice president, said the city’s main line was “designed improperly” when it was installed within the last decade. He said his company was planning to sue the city as well.
“We and the homeowner’s association are the unfortunate victims here,” Martin said.
Martin said Bosa has also experienced problems with hydrogen sulfide at its neighboring Grande South development. At Grande South, Bosa could fix the problem by installing a trap on its sewer line. At the Grande North, the problem lies on the city’s side, Martin said.
City officials began responding to questions from voiceofsandiego.org about the Grande North’s system two weeks ago, but stopped answering follow up and detailed questions once the Grande filed its lawsuit.
“The city can’t respond to these questions or any question on this matter in light of pending litigation,” Laing said in an e-mail Tuesday.
Last week, the city installed what’s known as a “flapper valve” in its sewer line to prevent gases from backing up into the Grande’s system.
“If the flapper valve is successful, it will eliminate the pressing life safety issue,” Berman said. However, he said that solution should be considered temporary, and that the homeowners association is asking for a permanent solution, a trap similar to what’s found underneath sinks to block the gas entirely.
An expert said the flapper valve and the trap desired by the homeowner’s association mitigate gas problems.
“Both of them are designed to block the drain from sewer gases when the pipes aren’t being used,” said Joe Devinny, a professor of environmental engineering at the University of Southern California said.
He added, however, the trap requires less maintenance than the flapper valve.
Berman emphasized the trap was a better answer because of its permanence and said that plumbing code necessitated that solution. Regardless, the suit will remain on the books because of the trap issue and the damage to the Grande’s pipes, he said.
Laing said the city’s wastewater department was unaware of problems at the Grande until Berman’s Sept. 9 letter.
But the city Risk Management Department knew.
Berman filed a claim to the department on Aug. 13. It was rejected in a letter from claims representative Leroy Hostetler on Aug. 24. Hostetler said the homeowner’s association missed a six-month deadline to file its claim. Berman said Hostetler cited the wrong law and didn’t respond to three of his phone calls.
Further, in his Sept. 9 letter, Berman referenced three city employees he said were aware of the Grande’s complaints.
Prior to the flapper valve’s installation, a voiceofsandiego.org reporter and photographer visited the complex. The smell of rotten eggs was apparent on the Grande’s roof, a consequence of the complex’s ventilation system.
It is unclear how widespread hydrogen sulfide problems are downtown. Martin, the Bosa representative, said his company had to install a trap at Grande South to block the gas. There’s no problem, he said, at Bosa’s nearby Bayside development because its sewer line doesn’t connect to Pacific Highway.