As our bottom time drew toward the limit (25 minutes at 100 feet), we spotted something that was perhaps suspicious. Two gorgonian sea fans, which are upright bush-like organisms that usually have a fuzzy lushness to their branches, looked sickly. They were just skeletons, nude spindly twigs blowing in the surge. Aha, I thought. Environmental damage! But then I had to admit that I had seen gorgonians similarly denuded off La Jolla. Things die.
I had become so engrossed in the whole busy scene that I was startled to feel a resistance in my regulator. A glance at the air-pressure gauge showed less than 300 pounds: safe diving technique requires that divers ascend to the surface when they’re down to 500 pounds of air. I grabbed Bill’s leg and ran my finger across my throat denoting no air. We went up immediately. On the surface, as we looked around for the boat, Bill said I had interrupted his raid on a den of three large lobsters.
The sewage outfall pipe is a reinforced concrete tube 9 feet in diameter and 11,450 long. At a depth of 200 feet, a “Y” structure send the pipe off in tow diverging sections. These sections are made of reinforced concrete pipe 6 feet 6 inches in diameter, each 1368 feet long, ending in about 210 feet of water in an 80-ton concrete structure that acts as an anchor. These two sections are called the diffusers. Every 48 feet long along the diffuser legs, on alternating sides of the pipe, is a port measuring 10 by 12 inches. Out of these ports, day and night since 1963, San Diego’s treated sewage has spilled into the sea.
The pipe cost about $10.5 million to build as part of the $52 million metropolitan sewerage system, and it also cost diver Lee Jamison his life. Rod Donnelly, a civil engineer who retired last year from the City of San Diego, was in charge of the inspection process during construction of the pipe. Donnelly, during an interview in his La Mesa home, dug through his diaries relating to the outfall construction and came up with the date that Jamison died of the bends: September 5, 1962.
Donnelly said that Jamison had been on the job since it began, in June of 1962, and he was one of a couple of dozen hard-hat divers who dove constantly and who suffered routinely from the bends. “The bends were very common, but usually minor,” says Donnelly. “Pain in the elbow or knee was just part of the job. The diving supervisor even had his own decompression chamber in his garage. He’d wake up in the middle of the night with a twinge in his elbow, jump in his chamber, and take himself down to 90 feet and decompress.” Many of the hard-hat divers, whose main job was lining up and connecting the 24-foot-long sections of pipe (the connections are compression joints, sealed by an internal rubber O-ring), then dumping the ballast rocks beneath the pipe as a foundation, refused to take a break from their rigors. Jamison was one of these. “He said he was 40, but I think he has 43,” Donnelly recalls. “Older divers like that can’t dive day after day without accumulating problems with the bends. But Lee saw this as his last chance to make any real money.”
While civil engineers like Donnelly were making less than $500 a month, the divers were getting paid by the day, by the depth they dove, and earning double and triple time on the weekends and holidays. Donnelly saw a diver’s paycheck once -- $1800 for one week’s labor.
On September 4, 1962, Jamison was working at 200 feet, helping to direct an airlift suction device that was excavating a hole for the “Y” structure. At that depth, divers had about 25 minutes to work before heading up and making decompression stops at 90, 60, 30 and 10 feet. Then they would be rushed into one of two decompression chambers on the barge over the dive site and brought back down to 90 feet again for more decompression. But probably because he had been diving so much, so deep, and he was in his 40s, Jamison was struck badly by the bends at the 30-foot decompression stop. He was dropped back down to 90 feet, where he felt better for a short time, but then he began hurting again. He was brought up and placed in a decompression chamber, and two Navy doctors were summoned.
The mood on the barge was somber; everybody on the job knew that this was a serious bends hit. “Lee was conscious almost all of the time through that night and into the next day,” says Donnelly, who had the unpleasant task of picking up the diver’s wife and daughter at the airport after Jamison died. “He knew that if he lived he’d be a quadriplegic. They said he gave in, he surrendered. Said, “Let me go…” The job was shut down for a short time, and state officials required that the diving contractor shave another five minutes off the allowable bottom times for divers at all depths. Before the job was completed, in August of 1963, Donnelly says about a dozen divers “had packed their bags and walked off,” having had their fill of pain from the bends.
After the pipe started conveying sewage out to sea, Donnelly himself dove on it many times. He was the head of a city dive team that was part of the water utilities department. “We built the pipe to protect the beaches from sewage,” he proudly remarks, “and it’s done that. That pipe will be there for thousands of years.”
But will it work that long?
“One hopes so.”
Before the installation of the pipe, most of the city’s sewage was dumped into San Diego Bay. After decades of that, the bay had become an open sewer. Jim Stewart, diving officer at Scripps, helped conduct an environmental survey of the bay before the outfall was built, and he says he and a couple of other divers planted kelp in the bay to see how it would do. “After two days, the kelp had turned to slime,” he recalls. The installation of the outfall definitely benefitted San Diego Bay. But one day in 1969, on July 31, according to Donnelly’s diaries, Donnelly dove on the outfall about 50 feet and took some water samples. Tests showed the presence of coliform bacteria, whose source is human waste, on both sides of the pipe inside the kelp bed.