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Threat To Beaches Claimed : Plan to Relax Sewage Treatment Draws Fire

Times Staff Writer

The wave of opposition to the relaxation of sewage treatment standards along the North County shoreline rolled into this coastal city Wednesday, bearing residents who urged that Oceanside officials abort their drive to discharge dirtier waste water into the sea.

More than 100 surfers, fishermen, parents and environmentalists swarmed City Hall to oppose Oceanside’s application for a permit to reduce the treatment of nearly 11 million gallons of sewage discharged through the city’s ocean outfall each day.

Arguing that diluting the level of sewage treatment threatens the health of beachgoers and marine life, the protesters--many of whom picketed outside with placards--urged city council members to pause and study the issue further before proceeding with their plans.

After an hour of testimony, the crowd won a modest victory: The council, with Mayor Larry Bagley absent, voted unanimously to convene a public hearing on the controversial proposal.

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The protesters, led by People for a Clean Ocean, a Cardiff-based group that claims 3,000 members, were pleased and vowed to turn out in force at the April 23 hearing.

“I think the council’s action is a good sign if in fact they intend to keep an open mind on this issue,” said Richard MacManus, president of the Cardiff Town Council and a founder of People for a Clean Ocean. “But if they’re going to use that meeting to simply placate community concern and bring in their sewage experts to justify and rationalize their actions, it would be a real shame.”

Like many other California coastal communities, Oceanside has applied for a waiver from stringent sewage treatment standards established by the federal Clean Water Act. Under the act, sewage discharged offshore must undergo “secondary treatment"--a sophisticated process that uses microorganisms to break down the waste.

The waivers, granted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under an amendment to the act, require only “advanced primary” treatment, a less refined settling process that simply sifts out the larger waste particles. Studies have found waste water that goes through that process contains 34 “priority pollutants” ranging from pesticides like DDT and chlordane to heavy metals like arsenic and chromium.

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Officials in Oceanside and Fallbrook, which discharges about 1 million gallons of sewage through its coastal neighbor’s outfall pipe, say the reduced treatment will save them money and enable their communities to accommodate new development.

Jim Turner, Oceanside’s water utilities director, said the waiver would save the city $300,000 a year in reduced sewage treatment costs and as much as $25 million that otherwise would be needed for treatment plant expansion to absorb future growth. The waiver might also eliminate the need for sewer rate increases tentatively planned for next year, Turner said.

But many of those opposing the city’s proposal countered that the cost savings could be quickly eliminated by the loss of tourists that could result should Oceanside’s popular shoreline be hit by sewage contamination. The city, which boasts some of the best beaches in the county, annually hosts a major international surfing contest and numerous other waterfront events.

“I appreciate the city’s efforts to save us money,” Oceanside resident Cramer Jackson said. “But don’t forget that to close the beach for one week or two during summertime would be astronomical economically. . . . That beach is our best asset, and we should use it wisely.”

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Other residents reminded the council of its $3.5-million project to rebuild the municipal pier and suggested the city should be willing to invest funds to ensure water quality as well.

“What are we going to do, fish off that nice new pier and get contaminated fish?” said Olga Johnson. “Nobody’s going to eat that fish. And who wants to swim in a cesspool?”

Finally, MacManus argued that the health threat posed by lowering treatment standards far outweighs any cost savings the city might enjoy. Critics of the proposal say the lesser-treated sewage contains disease-causing viruses that cannot be detected by water quality tests.

Turner, however, disagrees: “There is no validity to the virus argument,” he said. “The viruses simply cannot survive in the harsh ocean environment.”

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Oceanside is the most recent applicant for a waiver in San Diego County. Carlsbad was granted the exemption more than a year ago, and last week, the City of Escondido and the County of San Diego received a permit to cut their treatment of as many as 20 million gallons of sewage dumped into the ocean off Cardiff each day. An appeal of that permit, filed by People for a Clean Ocean, is pending.

Meanwhile, a 200-yard stretch of Cardiff State Beach that was closed last week due to pollution five times the level considered safe remains off limits to bathers. John Melbourn, county public health engineer, said the popular surfing spot would be under quarantine for at least four more days.


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