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Oceanside Drops Proposal to Reduce Sewage Treatment

Times Staff Writer

Under siege from a robust army of angry, well-organized residents, Oceanside officials have abandoned their plan to reduce treatment of 11 million gallons of sewage pumped into the ocean each day.

After a lengthy public hearing before a crowd of about 300 Tuesday night, City Council members voted unanimously to withdraw their application for a federal permit to discharge dirtier waste water through an ocean outfall pipe stretching more than a mile offshore.

“The people spoke, and they spoke loudly,” Councilman John MacDonald said. “The responsible thing to do was to listen.”

The council’s action, taken after nearly three hours of public testimony, was heralded as almost heroic by the feisty band of activists who united to oppose the city’s plans. Richard MacManus, an attorney and founder of the Cardiff-based People for a Clean Ocean, said the council “should be very highly commended for listening carefully and making the right choice.”

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“We’re elated,” said MacManus, whose group claims more than 4,000 supporters. “We think the City of Oceanside has taken the leadership role in the area of maintaining the high quality of beaches in San Diego County. We can only hope that other communities will look at their example and learn from it.”

The unexpected vote makes Oceanside the first San Diego County agency with an ocean outfall pipe to scrap a bid for an exemption from relatively stringent federal sewage treatment requirements. San Diego County and the City of Escondido last month received a permit to reduce treatment of 14 million gallons of sewage discharged jointly each day off Cardiff State Beach. The Encina Pollution Control Facility in Carlsbad was given a similar waiver more than a year ago.

The City of San Diego, meanwhile, which discharges about 140 million gallons of sewage daily from its Point Loma treatment plant, is seeking to avoid requirements that it spend as much as $800 million for improvements necessary to equip that facility for secondary treatment. A verdict on San Diego’s application is due in the fall.

Under an amendment to the federal Clean Water Act of 1972, agencies that dump treated sewage in the ocean may apply for waivers permitting the reduction of sewage treatment from so-called secondary--a sophisticated process that uses microorganisms to consume waste--to advanced primary--a settling process that merely sifts out the larger waste particles.

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Numerous agencies have applied for the waivers, largely because of the the less refined treatment process is cheaper. In many cases, however, they have been met with stiff opposition. Citizens are fearful of the health risk posed by the waste water, which often contains pesticides such as DDT and heavy metals like chromium, while environmentalists view the treatment reduction as backsliding.

In Orange County, two agencies withdrew applications for waivers after a public outcry, and the City of Los Angeles recently was ordered to spend $528 million to improve its processing plants and to increase treatment of the 410 million gallons of sewage it dumps daily into Santa Monica Bay.

Oceanside, which also discharges waste from the Fallbrook Sanitary District through its outfall pipe, decided in 1982 to seek a waiver. Since then, the city has invested more than $100,000 in consultants’ fees and elaborate ocean water testing necessary to prepare the voluminous application to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, according to Jim Turner, Oceanside’s water utilities director.

Turner said diluting treatment standards would save the city $300,000 a year in treatment costs and as much as $25 million that ultimately would be needed for plant expansion to accommodate population growth. He also said arguments alleging a health threat from the less-treated waste water were specious, because “viruses can’t survive in the harsh ocean environment.”

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But plenty of people--many of them outraged Oceanside voters--disagreed, and turned out in force Tuesday night to implore the council to abandon its plans. Testimony came from all corners of the community, from concerned parents worried that their children’s health would be jeopardized by potential ocean pollution to businessmen fearful of anything that might hurt Oceanside’s reputation as an inviting beach town.

Apparently, their voices did the trick; the chorus of opposition prompted council members to reverse a “full steam ahead” attitude that seemed firm only two weeks ago. Although several councilmen said they remain convinced that lowering standards would not be negligent and indeed is the right path to take, the officials agreed that it was their duty to listen to their constituents and respond accordingly.

“Because of the cost savings, we had to give it a shot, to consider (the waiver) in all fairness to the taxpayers,” Councilman Ted Marioncelli said. “But we didn’t get one phone call in support of it--and we got plenty against.”

MacDonald, who still believes that advanced primary treatment is safe, said he viewed the council’s action as critical to preserving Oceanside’s reputation as a clean, beach-oriented community appealing to tourists. The city is host to a major international surfing tournament each year and has some of the county’s nicest beaches.

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“No matter how strong the evidence was that the lower treatment would not pollute the ocean, the dominant perception was that it would,” said MacDonald, who personally surveyed about 150 residents and found only one who encouraged the city to seek the waiver.

Mayor Larry Bagley said “new issues, particularly health issues” raised by opponents in recent weeks helped change his mind on the matter. In addition, Bagley called the cost savings forecast under the reduced treatment “nebulous” because of the possibility that federal officials might change ocean monitoring requirements and increase the city’s financial burden.

One councilman, Walt Gilbert, remained in favor of pursuing the waiver after the exhaustive testimony Tuesday. Gilbert, who fears residents will “scream” when they are saddled with costs for treatment and future plant expansion, proposed putting the waiver application on hold and placing the question before voters in November. But he failed to muster much support, and in the end voted with the majority.

“If you’re whipped and you know it, you may as well give in,” Gilbert explained.

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Turner, who is still convinced that advanced primary treatment “is not an environmental problem,” said the spiraling costs of secondary treatment probably will add $8 to residential water bills next year--and much more as time goes on. Turner said the city will now shift its focus to water reclamation in an effort to save money.


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