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City Wins Delay on Sewer Hookup Ban Urged for North City

Times Staff Writer

San Diego’s hard-pressed sewage system dodged a big bullet Monday when state pollution-control officials decided to give the city more time to devise an emergency plan to stop sewage spills rather than impose a drastic, growth-busting ban on sewer hookups in burgeoning North City.

But the Regional Water Quality Control Board ordered the city to stop sewage spills from a Sorrento Valley pump station and said it would fine the city $10 for every gallon of raw sewage dumped into Los Penasquitos Creek. The pump station has dumped sewage 58 times since 1979, including a 4.5-million-gallon spill April 23, which forced a quarantine of Los Penasquitos Lagoon.

The board’s staff had proposed the hookup ban because of what it called a chronic history of problems at the pump station.

But at Monday’s hearing, a parade of city and construction industry officials warned that a ban would mean the loss of 18,000 jobs and $1.6 billion from the local economy. City officials also assured the board that the San Diego Water Utilities Department is working diligently to fix Pump Station 64 in Sorrento Valley.

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Those assurances appeared to sway board members, who voted to issue a “cease and desist” order against future sewage spills from the Sorrento Valley station instead of an immediate ban on sewer hookups in the 100-square-mile area that includes the neighborhoods of Scripps Ranch, Mira Mesa, Rancho Penasquitos, Sorrento Valley and North City West, and the cities of Poway and Del Mar.

Avoiding the ban was the second--and biggest--victory of the day for the city. Earlier, the board postponed a decision on whether to approve a $643,706 fine against San Diego for allegedly dumping wet sludge at Brown Field.

The city has until July 28 to prepare an emergency plan for the pump station and to present a report on the alleged sludge dumping.

Monday’s hearing appeared to be shaping up as a showdown, with the board’s staff recommending harsh penalties against the city because of persistent sludge dumping and sewage spills.

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But board members, who often asked pointed questions of San Diego water officials, appeared to soften as the city officials vigorously rebutted any suggestion that the city was shrugging off its sewage problems.

“I can tell you in the last 10 years, it is the single largest frustration to the city management--sewage,” said John Lockwood, assistant city manager.

Armand V. Campillo, water utilities director, appealed to board members to treat the city as “allies, not as adversaries.” Acting Mayor Ed Struiksma added that the City Council has appropriated $1.1 million for the department in the fiscal year beginning July 1 for 18 additional employees and needed equipment.

“The City of San Diego fully recognizes we have a serious problem, and we are actively undertaking aggressive corrective measures to eliminate past inadequacies in the sewer system,” Struiksma said.

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The approach worked.

“I had never seen before as I did at this hearing specific activities that they were trying to do to solve the problem,” board Chairman Forster said during the hearing’s lunch break. “It has always been very lightly touched. . . . I was starting to feel that they were not giving the full attention to a real public health and safety problem that their citizenry would want them to give.”

Before the hearing, water quality staffers had proposed a ban of all sewage hookups into the approximately 400 miles of sewer mains leading to Pump Station 64 because of the facility’s “chronic history of mechanical and electrical failures.” Since January, there have been six sewage overflows into Los Penasquitos Creek.

The staff also proposed fines of up to $450,000 for past sewage spills.

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The spills, a staff report said, constitute a public health threat because raw sewage spilling into the lagoon, and eventually the ocean, created an odor nuisance, killed fish, depleted oxygen from the water and threatened bathers and surfers with diseases, including hepatitis.

City officials were to blame for the problem because they failed to exercise “reasonable engineering judgment” in building Pump Station 64, the staff argued. The staff blamed the city for the spills because the station lacked a backup power source and because of improper calculations of how much sewage the station could handle.

Water quality staffers estimate that, during the rainy seasons in three of the next four years, the pump station will receive more sewage than it can handle.

“Everything seems to be breaking,” Sierra Club member Allann Sakarias told the board. “To me, it seems to indicate the facility is overloading. And each day, with new hookups flowing sewage, we are looking at a disaster. . . . My greatest fear is that someone will die from sewage from Pump Station 64.”

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But Milon Mills, the water department’s deputy director for engineering, countered by telling board members the pump station suffered only from a series of mechanical failures, not bad engineering.

He said the city in August replaced two 200-horsepower pumps with two 500-horsepower pumps, and it intends to install another pair of 500-horsepower pumps next year.

In addition, he said, the city is working to install a second power source and, recently, the City Council approved a $360,000 contract to design a second main for the station, which should be completed by December, 1988.

Mills also promised that the water department will do everything to “cut corners” in the city’s procurement process to buy the pumps and second power source as quickly as possible.

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Among those supporting Mills’ arguments against the hookup ban was Kim Kilkenny, a lobbyist for the 1,500-member Construction Industry Federation.

Kilkenny estimated the ban would stop one-tenth of all building in the San Diego region and mean the loss of $1.6 billion to the local economy in wages, taxes, services and goods purchased. It would mean the loss of 5,000 construction jobs and 13,000 related jobs, he said.

Kilkenny said the construction federation will press the city to resolve the pump station problems.

“A month ago, frankly, we didn’t know this problem existed,” said Kilkenny. “Now, it is our No. 1 legislative priority.”

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City officials are scheduled to return July 28 with an emergency plan for improvements at Pump Station 64. The board’s staff had recommended an Oct. 16 deadline for installing the emergency equipment, but board members said that might be too soon.

The board also deferred until its July meeting the question of whether to impose almost $644,000 in fines for sludge dumping at Brown Field.

Staff members had asked for the fine because they said the city “withheld information” that it had transported more than 171,000 cubic yards of sludge and other materials from its Fiesta Island dump site to Brown Field over a period of nearly four years. They said the transport of the sludge--the solid by-product of waste water treatment--was never listed on state reports.

City water officials said the state was told that the sludge was being held at Brown Field while the city waited for approval to dispose of it at a county landfill in Otay Mesa. They produced copies of several reports to the state, including one dated September, 1982, in which officials listed the dumping of sludge at Brown Field, on city-owned land.

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In a good-faith effort, officials said, the water department has contracted to have the sludge removed from Brown Field, beginning on Monday. The 171,000 cubic yards will be moved to the county’s dump by early November, in accordance with a deadline imposed by the water quality control board.

Ted Bromfield, chief deputy city attorney, argued that the reports demonstrated that water officials did not intentionally hide the sludge dumping from the state. He also said it was stored so that rainwater runoff would be caught in retention ponds.

“Nothing could be further from the truth that this action was taken with purposeful disregard to the environment,” he said.

After the board’s decision, Bromfield said he was happy.

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“We think by July 28, we’ll show we’re well in compliance. This is a reprieve to show our good-faith effort,” he said.


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