OAKHURST — Just over four weeks ago, Oakhurst Postmaster Holly Baker made a shocking observation involving a tour bus in Oakhurst, and followed it up with a phone call to the Sheriff.
Shortly before 9 a.m. on Monday, Sept. 16, Baker witnessed a large tour bus park right in front of the post office, where the driver proceeded to empty his vehicle’s waste tank into a storm drain that feeds into the Fresno River.
Baker immediately phoned the Madera County Sheriff’s Office to report the incident, while the bus left the scene for what were, at the time, parts unknown.
Authorities soon determined that the charter bus was registered to Screamline Investment Corporation in Commerce, CA. Screamline is one of the largest tour bus companies in California and has had the same president since 1968. They operate under the name Tourcoach International.
According to a press release from the Sheriff’s Office, the driver of the Tourcoach bus was James Sesulka, 49, of Garden Grove, CA. He was located later that day, along with his bus, in Yosemite National Park.
Sesulka reportedly dropped off his 22 passengers at the Raley’s Shopping Center that morning, then maneuvered the luxury tour bus across the street to the post office, emptied the waste tank onto the pavement where it flowed into the storm drain, then picked up his passengers and headed north into Yosemite.
According to a Hazardous Materials Incident Log for Sept. 16, supplied by the Madera County Environmental Health Department (EHD), the EHD was contacted at approximately 9:15 a.m. concerning the illegal dumping of sewage, and arrived on scene by 10:30 a.m. Sergeant Jacob Tallmon and Deputy John Terry were already on scene.
Once Screamline Investment Corp. was determined to be the party responsible, the company was given a list of local septic pumpers they could contact to deal with the incident. Screamline called Big Oak Septic Services to request they respond to a “minor spill.” Big Oak arrived at the location with two trucks, only to determine that the spill site was more substantial than what they had anticipated based on the call from Screamline.
Experts agreed that a storm drain sump, located approximately 150 feet west of the sewage spill, was a collection sump. “One truck released approximately 500 gallons of water into the storm drain while the second truck was pumping out the flushed liquid at the storm drain sump,” reads the EHD report. “Big Oak estimated that they have pumped about 250 gallons of liquid/solids.”
According to the county document, the amount of hazardous waste released was “unknown – reported aprox (sic) 250 gallon.”
The area around the sewage release site was cordoned off while the nearly six-hour clean-up operation was conducted.
As word of the tour bus waste dump spread throughout the community — towns that rely heavily on tourism for business — questions began to arise.
Why would the bus driver – who now faces a potential of three year’s incarceration and a $10,000 fine – dump the waste in front of a public building in broad daylight? How did Susulka know where the storm drain was located? Most ominously, is this an unlikely “first,” or has human waste been dumped into local storm drains before?
Repeated attempts by phone and email to contact a public relations representative for Screamline went unanswered, but the president of a local, family-owned, central California charter bus company was available to outline the standard operating procedures of a reputable organization.
Chris Riddington of Classic Charter, Inc., reports that, “overall, dumping a holding tank is something that is not a big deal. Professional companies and drivers have networks and we preplan to make sure our customers and our equipment are taken care of. For a company to have a driver take it upon himself to make such a terrible decision is disheartening. This is not the normal occurrence for the charter bus industry that takes care of millions of travelers annually.”
The emptying of holding tanks, which can range in capacity from less than 50 to over 200 gallons of solid and liquid waste, goes hand-in-hand with fueling, Reddington explains.
“When we have a long trip, we will need to fuel and to empty our holding tank. We do all our out-of-town fueling at our CFN fueling sites; we are part of the CFN network of fuel and dump site locations. Having a dump station at a fuel site makes sense.”
Riddington says that other tour bus operators are a good source for helping to identify legal locations for dumping waste. The American Bus Association, United Motor Coach Association and the California Bus Association are professional organizations catering to the industry.
“With other professional operators willing to point you in the right direction, or they may have onsite facilities that can be used, this may be a good option for some. Another tool would be an RV location,” says Riddington.
Online research reveals that a handful of businesses in and around Oakhurst will allow tour buses to dump their waste for a fee that starts as low as $10.
Listed on the website www.sanidumps.com, KOA Yosemite South/Coarsegold is open year-round and while their dump services are available at no charge to registered guests, anyone can use the facilities for a minimal fee. The KOA Coarsegold is located about halfway between Fresno and the southern entrance to Yosemite National Park.
Other facilities are listed on the same website as being available in Bass Lake and inside the Park.
In Oakhurst, High Sierra RV Park and Campground says they have “plenty of room” for a 40-45′ tour bus, similar to the Coach Tour bus involved in the illegal dump at the Post Office.
Manager Cathy Frye has been in the RV business for twenty years.
“It’s easy and accessible” to dump waste, says Frye. “They pull in and pull out and dump for a $10 fee.” Frye reminds RV and bus drivers that most rest stops have waste stations, too.
Meanwhile, the Madera County District Attorney’s Office reports that a case has been brought by the Sheriff’s Office. Felony charges are pending against Sesulka as the D.A.’s office reviews the case and continues their investigation into the incident.