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Board Spurns North County Sewage Pleas

Times Staff Writer

Members of the state Regional Water Quality Control Board on Monday declined to reconsider their decision granting two North County sewage treatment plants permission to discharge dirtier waste water into the sea.

Leaders of People for a Clean Ocean, an environmental group claiming 6,000 members, had asked the board to reopen public hearings on plans by the City of Escondido and the county to relax treatment standards for 13 million gallons of sewage discharged off Cardiff each day.

William Mueller, an attorney for the organization, argued that new evidence--including studies detailing the harmful effects of sewage on the health of humans and marine life--had surfaced since the board approved the two agencies’ plans and said it merited consideration by the panel.

In addition, Mueller noted, two new cities--Encinitas and Solana Beach--have incorporated since the board’s decision and will soon assume control of the Cardiff ocean outfall, now under the county’s purview. Consequently, it is only fair that representatives of the new cities--who signed a letter to the board requesting the rehearing--be given a chance for input on the issue, Mueller argued.

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But the board, on a 4-3 vote with two members absent, disagreed. Those opposing the rehearing said the process would be costly and said that any new evidence would probably be considered by the state Water Resources Control Board, which is scheduled to hear an appeal by the Clean Ocean group in coming months.

“There comes a point in time when we’ve made our decision and it’s time to move on,” member Gary Arant said. “I’ve sat through numerous public hearings on this. We’ve heard the information. The regional board’s work is done, and it’s time for the state to take over.”

Richard MacManus, a Carlsbad attorney and founder of People for a Clean Ocean, called the board’s action frustrating.

“This isn’t a giant setback, and I’m confident we’ll be victorious and have a clean ocean in the end,” MacManus said. “But it is a little discouraging. We have some significant new information here that wasn’t previously presented at the regional level. It’s important this information be brought out because it may have altered their decision.”

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The regional board voted in March to grant Escondido and the county waivers to reduce from “secondary” to “advanced primary” their treatment of sewage. The two agencies pursued the waivers, available to ocean dischargers under an amendment to the federal Clean Water Act, in hopes of saving money and increasing treatment capacity.

Secondary treatment is a sophisticated process involving the use of microorganisms, which digest waste and produce highly refined effluent. Advanced primary treatment is mostly a settling process that removes only the largest waste particles.

Opponents of the waivers say they represent environmental backsliding and pose a threat to the public health and marine life. The advanced primary effluent has been found to contain 34 “priority pollutants,” including pesticides such as DDT and heavy metals like arsenic, but regulatory officials say the effluent remains within acceptable water quality standards.

Despite Monday’s decision rejecting a rehearing on the local level, the Clean Ocean group has had success on another front. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agreed last week to investigate several issues raised by the organization, an action that delays issuance of permits to the plants.

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According to Mueller, the EPA will evaluate four concerns raised by Clean Ocean supporters, including the impact of lower treatment levels on water recreation and the public health, and alleged inadequacies in an ocean monitoring program proposed by the two dischargers.

There were, however, additional issues that the EPA declined to examine, and Clean Ocean members were hoping to reopen the public hearing locally in order to get those matters aired. These issues include, for example, the effect that the sewage will have on the California least tern and several other endangered birds that feed and nest at San Elijo Lagoon, site of the county’s treatment plant.

Mueller also argued that the recent disclosure that an official at Escondido’s treatment plant altered key testing data ought to be weighed by the board prior to its decision on the waivers.

“It seems to me that this falsification is reason enough for a rehearing,” MacManus said. “In refusing to consider that, the board has chosen to put on blindfolds.”

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David Barker, a senior engineer on the regional board staff, said an investigation into the alleged falsification should be completed this week.


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