A state investigation of raw sewage spills into Queen Creek Wash and a nearby neighborhood shows water and wastewater utility provider Johnson Utilities failed to report the incidents and the spill was more than 10,000 gallons.
That is double the original estimates and a violation of state law.
Spills on May 17 and 18 sent the sewage flowing into the wash and oozing up through manhole covers and into the streets of the Pinal County development of Pecan Creek. Residents are concerned about their health and safety, particularly after water tested in the wash showed high levels of fecal coliform and E. coli.
Arizona Department of Environmental Quality and county health officials have warned people to stay away from standing water in the wash as E. coli levels found there could be harmful to people.
A notice of violation released by the DEQ on Friday says Johnson Utilities violated state law with the spill and by failing to report it.
The notice says the company must conduct twice-weekly sampling until E. coli is within allowable levels and provide DEQ with a list and reports on all sanitary sewer overflows that have occurred since Jan. 1, 2007. Also, within 30 days it must upgrade the Pecan Water Reclamation Plant with two 75 horsepower pumps.
An inspection by DEQ officials found the spills were caused by debris getting stuck and causing a pump to fail. The report shows the station has no backup pumps.
Johnson Utilities representatives said they found fabric, wires and a mop head after the sewage backup. The inspection also noted that no software had been installed that would allow remote notification of a high-water alarm.
DEQ spokesman Mark Shaffer said his agency is also looking into other system inadequacies.
"The pumps were the most apparent thing," he said.
The report calls the overflows an "ongoing problem" and noted a spill in December at the same location sent more than 5,000 gallons of raw sewage into the wash and adjoining neighborhood.
Shaffer said instances of sanitary sewer overflow in other state utility systems are "rare," and he's only seen one similar case, in Verde Valley when a main broke.
Johnson Utilities employees answering phones Friday said that Vice President Brian Tompsett was out of the office until late next week. Messages left for other employees went unanswered.
Pecan Creek resident Brian McNamara, whose 7-year-old son found the May spill, said he's concerned about Johnson Utilities response to the sewage overflow in his neighborhood. He said he's been communicating with DEQ about the issue.
"They should be able to handle unforeseen circumstances within their system, and it seems like they don't have the capacity to handle the slightest disruption," McNamara said.
With what residents pay for wastewater services, he said, Johnson Utilities should be running things better.
"I can't believe they're the only utility in the United States that has to deal with mop heads and other things entering the system," McNamara said. "They're running on a razor-thin margin or error. They're trying to run this place at the lowest cost possible, but at the same time there's public safety involved, and they need a buffer."
Earlier this month, DEQ ordered Johnson Utilities to post signs near standing water in the Queen Creek Wash warning of high levels of E. coli and fecal coliform. Shaffer said warnings about E. coli levels are designed to protect people from diarrhea, cramps and other illnesses.
"The most at-risk groups are children and older people who might have had previous medical problems," he said.
Johnson Utilities, owned by Scottsdale developer George Johnson, serves more than 9,000 customers in his namesake community of Johnson Ranch and other developments south and east of Queen Creek.
In December, Johnson was forced to pay the state $7 million to end a three-year legal battle accusing him of a long list of environmental violations during his attempt to develop a swath of Pinal County desert into a master-planned community called La Osa Ranch north of Tucson.
Shaffer said Johnson Utilities had cleaned and disinfected sewage-exposed areas but there hasn't been any active treatment of the wash water.
"Generally, nature has a way of taking care of itself, and we did have rain recently," Shaffer said. "All indications have been that it is falling back to what the standards are."
But Shaffer said they are waiting on the results of testing done Thursday. A full report on the Pecan Water Reclamation Plant incident should be issued in about 10 days.