Water Board Lets City Off Hook on Sewage Spills and Cuts Fine

Times Staff Writer

State water-quality officials on Monday voted down a controversial plan to ban all new sewer hookups in the fast-growing northern reaches of San Diego because of repeated spills of raw sewage from the city's troubled Pump Station 64.

Rejecting the advice of its staff, the California Regional Water Quality Control Board also opted for the time being to fine the city only $11,391.95--considerably less than the $646,800 penalty originally proposed for the spills.

However, the board reserved the right to reconsider a sewer hookup moratorium and impose stiff penalties if the city fails to meet the strict timetable set for beefing up the plant, or if sewage spills again.

The board's action leaves San Diego free to resume issuing sewer hookup permits for new construction in its northern communities, where building industry officials say 20% of the city's new construction is taking place. A temporary hookup ban that the City Council recently imposed is due to expire today, and the council is expected to consider an ordinance that would reimpose the ban only if there are new problems.

Sorrento Valley's Pump Station 64, which pumps raw sewage from northern San Diego, Del Mar and Poway to the Point Loma sewage treatment plant, has overflowed on 58 occasions since 1979 dumping millions of gallons of sewage into Los Penasquitos Creek and Lagoon.

City officials claimed the spills resulted from mechanical and electrical problems traceable at least in part to contractors who built the plant. The city insisted the plant has sufficient capacity and that the snafus were beyond their control.

But water-quality officials blamed many of the overflows on municipal negligence, saying the city failed to follow accepted design standards in building the plant. They questioned whether the plant even had the capacity to serve its burgeoning bailiwick.

For those reasons, the board staff in May recommended that the board impose a sewer hookup moratorium until the city could correct the problems. The City Council passed on its own what became a two-week moratorium in the meantime, pending action by the water board.

At its monthly meeting Monday, the board accepted the arguments of city and building industry officials that a longer construction ban was not needed because the city has embarked upon a $9.5-million program to upgrade the Sorrento Valley plant.

That program, which city officials outlined to the board Monday, is to include upgrading two of the station's six pumps; building a second "force main" to carry sewage to Point Loma; installing a backup source of electrical power; providing a permanent underground electrical service to meet an increased load; and putting in a 1,260-foot underground pipe capable of storing 350,000 gallons in the event of an overflow.

City officials have promised to meet a strict timetable for the improvements. The temporary power and emergency storage is to be completed later this year, the additional pumps and permanent power by mid-1987, and the new force main by June 15, 1988.

That timetable flies in the face of city officials' earlier protestations, board members observed. They pointed out that city officials once claimed they would need two years to get a backup power source; now they expect to have it in mid-September.

"We want you to know that the pressure is on, and we recognize the pressure is on," said City Manager Sylvester Murray, who turned out with Mayor Maureen O'Connor, Councilwoman Abbe Wolfsheimer and a bevy of other city officials to state the city's case before the board.

They also urged the board not to fine the city for the spills, which the board could have done had it determined that the overflows were intentional or the result of negligence. City officials argued the money would be better spent on rebuilding the pump station.

In the end, the board voted unanimously to suspend the $646,800 fine recommended by its professional staff. It ordered the city only to pay $11,391.95 to the Los Penasquitos Lagoon Foundation as reimbursement for the costs of draining the lagoon after recent spills.

If the city fails to pay the foundation within 30 days, it must instead pay a $20,000 penalty to the board. The board will then reimburse the foundation, which is charged with protecting the environmentally sensitive lagoon.

Only if the city misses its deadlines for improvements at the pump station, or if there is another spill, will the board impose the remainder of the $646,800 penalty. A delay on any of the 44 scheduled repairs would incur 1/44th of the remainder of fine.

At the same meeting, the board also declined to penalize the city for what the board staff says was the illegal dumping of 171,135 cubic yards of sewage sludge (the solid byproduct of sewage treatment) on city-owned land at Brown Field.

By the end of this month, the city will have removed 100,000 cubic yards for proper disposal in the county-run landfill off Otay Valley Road, said Michael McCann, an engineer for the water board. He said the city is expected eventually to remove all the sludge.

"I'm quite pleased with the way the city has responded to cleaning up the mess at Brown Field," said Ladin Delaney, the board's executive officer. Delaney recommended that any possible fine be postponed until the city submits final cleanup plans.

Delaney said the board may eventually impose "a nominal penalty" for the city's failure to file required monitoring reports with the state.

The board's unanimous votes on Pump Station 64 came after extensive testimony from city officials and representatives of development interests arguing against a ban, and after 70 letters and a 500-signature petition in favor of the moratorium.

Arguing in its favor, a representative of the Rancho Penasquitos homeowners' association pointed out that millions of gallons of sewage had spilled into the lagoon and the ocean over the past seven years, and said public health and safety demanded a moratorium.

Arguing against it, developers and others said a moratorium would wreak economic havoc: They estimated that 5,000 to 9,000 construction jobs would be lost, along with $2 billion in annual economic activity.

The area served by Pump Station 64 is expected to generate 6,000 sewer hookup permits in the next 12 months. Builders figure that would represent a 0.5% increase in sewage flow to the station; environmentalists say the increase would be 5%.

Today, the emergency ban imposed by the City Council is due to expire. In its place, the Council is expected to consider a new ordinance that would reimpose the sewer-hookup ban only if the city failed to meet its timetable or there were more spills.

Ted Bromfield, chief deputy city attorney, told the board that the ban will automatically be triggered if the city falls behind its repair schedule, allows sewage to spill, or violates federal or state environmental rules governing plant operations.

"So it's an automatic trigger," Bromfield assured the board. "And the trigger is an automatic ban."

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