Wikipedia: “Grease traps (also known as grease interceptors, grease recovery devices and grease converters) are plumbing devices designed to intercept most greases and solids before they enter a wastewater disposal system. … Effectively they are boxes within the drain run that flows between the sinks in a kitchen to the sewer system. They only have kitchen wastewater flowing through them and they are not served by any other drainage system such as toilets. They can be made from a number of different materials; e.g., stainless steel, plastics, concrete & cast iron. … They can be located above ground, below ground, inside the kitchen or outside the building.”
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“Most commonly, grease traps back up either because they need to be cleaned or the grease trap is too small for the sink which can cause an outlet to be blocked. If you buy a large unit you will need to clean it less often because it will hold more grease. All grease traps will clog if you don't remove the grease regularly.”
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A 4x4 wooden tank rests between Dr. Tom Kravis’s Mendocino Hotel and Robert Bills Mendocino Board Sports, a business Mr. Bills operates out of a space he rents from Maureen O'Connor.
Mrs. O'Connor, widow of Robert O. Peterson, founder of Jack In The Box, was recently in the news for managing to run through $1 billion (count 'em) dollars to on-line gambling, easily the largest sum eaten by cyber-wagering.
Robert O. Peterson owned the Mendocino Hotel from 1975 to 1989 when it was purchased by his brother-in-law, Dr. Tom Kravis. At the time, Dr. Kravis was married to Maureen's twin sister, Mavourneen O'Connor. In a partnership controlled by Maureen, the sisters purchased Heritage House in Little River from the Dennen family in 1998. They sold that property in 2006 to Lantana LLC. In March 2012, Lantana Holdings LLC sold the property to Heritage House LP.
Dr. Kravis, according to the Mendocino Hotel’s website-bio, was a practicing emergency medicine physician in San Diego for a number of years, and published three editions of “Emergency Medicine” in two languages. He was a consultant at Andersen and then United Health Group in Minneapolis. For the last 19 years, he has owned the Mendocino Hotel.
“Since 2005, he has been actively engaged in the management of the Hotel, the assurance of a high-quality guest experience, and preserving the Old World charm and ambiance of the establishment.
‘If you have to get sick, a good prescription is to do it while you are a guest of the historic Mendocino Hotel in Northern California. You can expect a house call from the owner, who is a medical doctor. I don’t regularly practice anymore but I happen to be a licensed doctor who used to run and operate ER’s (emergency clinics),’ says Dr. Kravis.”
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The 4x4 grease trap/septic tank is situated on Main Street near the sidewalk between the Hotel’s “Garden Bar” and Bills' Board Sports shop where Bills sells and rents surfboards, mountain boards, skateboards, snowboards, paddle boards, wetsuits and other outdoor gear.
According to Mr. Bills, the tank has been overflowing sewage since December, and that sewage flows onto the sidewalk and out into the street and underneath the floor of Bills’ shop.
“Since December of last year, The Mendocino Hotel has been aware that their sewage overflows across my open business's door and runs down the sidewalk,” Mr. Bills complains. “People step in it unknowingly and track feces into my shop and into the Hotel, subjecting my customers and employees — and their own staff — to pathogens found in black water sewage.”
When this most unpleasant flow began, Bills called County Code Enforcement, the County Health Department and his County Supervisor, Dan Hamburg. Dr. Kravis met each complaint and his staff assuring authorities that the problem had been attended to.
And then the flow from the tank began to flow again.
Most recently, during the Mendocino Whale and Wine Festival weekend of Saturday-Sunday, March 2-3, the tank overflowed again.
“There was a breach,” Bills says,” of their containment area and once again, the third time that I know of, it went out onto the sidewalk, and came into my shop. People walked through it and they walked into the hotel and into the open restaurant, which is only about two feet from the tank and the spill. They told me not to worry about it; it was just water runoff from the bar sink. The Health Department finally came out last Tuesday and inspected it and concluded that it was raw sewage that was backing up from the hotel plumbing.
“Technically, this tank is a grease trap for the bar sink,” continues Bills. “It is required to be there before the sink-runoff can go into the city sewer system. It’s not supposed to be a septic tank and it should be isolated and not connected to the septic output from the hotel. I guess it's acceptable as a grease trap, but it's not acceptable for sewage to go into it.”
County Health Inspector Frank Kemper finally came out for a look, and duly cited the Hotel on Tuesday, March 5.
“Mr. Kemper, from the Mendocino County Health Department, came to investigate on Tuesday. He ordered the Hotel to shut down all water lines leading to the septic tank, contain their sewage and repair the septic system within 24 hours. However, the Hotel failed to comply with his order and did not completely remedy the sewage leak, nor contain it. For over three months The Mendocino Hotel has let their sewage overflow, and it still leaks onto the sidewalk today.”
“When Mr. Kemper first arrived it looked like it was not much of a problem, and that they were working on it,” Bills laments. “But then after he looked at the hundreds of pictures I've taken, he went back over and cited them and told them to turn off some of the sinks in the bar and the bathroom and somewhere else. You could tell by the smell that bathroom plumbing was going into the tank.”
Bills thinks the problem is a combination of improper maintenance of the tank and that the Hotel is running too many things into it, including sewage, which overwhelms the tank’s capacity and causes it to overflow onto the sidewalk and under his shop.
A delegation from the Mendocino Community Services District, who are responsible for the town’s sewer system, came out and told Bills that the problem was not their issue and suggested that he talk to the Health Department because it was obviously a problem.
Of course Bills had already done that; the Health Department had already contacted Kravis and told him to correct the problem and stop the leaking raw sewage beneath his customer's feet.
Prior to the Whale Festival, the Hotel assured one and all that they would take care of the problem and everything would be fine. So the Health Department didn’t think any direct action was necessary.
“They took the word of the hotel,” said Bills. “They did not actually come and look at the problem. But we have been closed since Saturday, March 2, and people have complained about the stench. We have shampooed our carpet twice now and it's still coming up so it looks like we'll have to replace it. I am preparing a claim. [Attorney] Barry Vogel is trying to help me. I have documented everything I can so far. I have hundreds of pictures.”
Then on Friday morning the Hotel manager handed Bills a complaint and said they were filing a restraining order to keep him 1000 feet from their front door, which happens to be about 10 feet from Bills’ front door.
“They are trying to keep me out of my business. When I filed my prior complaints, the Health Department told Dr. Kravis to clean it up before they had to come out and do something about it. He assured them it would be fixed. But according to Mr. Kemper's report there has been a sewer breach and it has contaminated Main Street and my business. I also have a declaration from a doctor saying that exposure to this stuff has given me a rash.”
Mr. Bills now thinks his landlady, Mrs. Maureen O’Connor, twin sister of Kravis’s ex-wife, is trying to either evict him or wants a restraining order which would make it impossible to run his business.
“After I filed my complaints Mrs. O'Connor, the former mayor of San Diego incidentally, handed me a release from my lease and asked me to sign it. She said that she could not force me to do it, but that she would appreciate it. My lease is good through December. I assume that her request had something to do with her being the sister of Tom Kravis's ex-wife.”
What about the Hotel’s other neighbors?
“None of the other neighbors want to get into a hassle with Dr. Kravis,” explained Bills. “People seem concerned in the area, but they do not want to step up to the plate. The leakage does mostly affect me. It goes right past my door and then into the street and down the storm drain; not many other businesses were affected — other than people walking through it with their wine glasses and then tracking it in wherever they go. The hotel people told passersby that it was just water, and that I was crazy. But it’s sewage. As it stands, I do not intend to move, I intend to see that the problem is fixed permanently and maintain my lease.”
As of last Thursday night the tank was still oozing and leaking onto the sidewalk.
“Friday morning they came out and threw some dirt on it and I don't think it's oozing at this point. They were supposed to clean it up and confine it with straw. But that was not done in a timely fashion. It's possible it was fixed to the County's satisfaction. We will see what happens when they turn faucets back on. We're trying to re-open [seven or eight days later]. I just had to close because people were tracking it in. It was not water; it was sewage, as confirmed by Frank Kemper. It has also seeped up from under the foundation. I've lost two big weekends of business because of this.”
Contacted late Friday afternoon, Dave Jensen, Mendocino County’s Environmental Health Supervisor for the Coast, and Mr. Kemper’s Supervisor in Fort Bragg, told us that Mr. Kemper was out on vacation. Mr. Jensen said that when he went down to check on it Friday he had confirmed that the hotel's sump pump had been replaced and was now operational. “The problem has been corrected,” said Mr. Jensen. “And the complaint has been closed. I will keep my eye on it.”
Mr. Bills disagrees.
“The Health Department has all the complaints that I started filing in February. The supervisor, Mr. Jensen, has not been out here. He's going on the word of the Hotel. The Hotel insists they're taking care of it. It is definitely sewage with all the pathogens that come with it. They have been trying to deal with it, but not very effectively and that's why it continues to back up whenever there's too much liquid coming into the tank. Clearly other things besides the water from the bar sink are going into that tank.”
“Lots of People have been put in jeopardy, and lots of people have been affected from walking through it,” adds Bills. “I would like other people in the area to come forward and help me with a class-action suit against the hotel.”