State water pollution control officials voted Friday to fine the City of San Diego at least $300,000 for sewage spills from Pump Station 64 and to ban new sewer hookups in the area served by the plant if sewage flows exceed plant capacity.
The California Regional Water Quality Control Board voted unanimously to impose a $1.5 million penalty for a 1.5 million gallon sewage spill on Thanksgiving Day. As in the past, however, the board suspended most of the fine contingent upon the city's improving the plant.
As for the hookup moratorium, it would go into effect if dry-weather sewage flows into the plant reach 20.5 million gallons a day (mgd). Current dry-weather flows are estimated at 19 mgd. But a 1.5 mgd increase is predicted to occur by the time the plant is expanded in November.
The board's action--the strongest it has taken against the city in the seven years in which the pump station has overflowed 59 times--came after federal Environmental Protection Agency officials met repeatedly on the issue with board and staff members.
One EPA official, David Jones, chief of the water management division in California, took what he said was the unusual step of coming from San Francisco to testify twice at Friday's hearing on the importance of penalizing municipalities that violate water laws.
"The primary and long-term cause of the spills has been the inadequate facility planning by the city," said Jones, whose agency has the power to overturn state board actions. "San Diego has failed to provide sufficient pumping capacity in a timely manner."
Afterward, Jones characterized the board's votes as "a pretty significant action," especially in the context of its past handling of the city. He noted that the $300,000 portion of the fine the city must pay was far larger than the mere $11,000 the board had levied before.
On the hookup ban, Jones said: "They drew a line in the sand. And it wasn't one of those good intent lines. It was a flat-out number. . . . They've now staked themselves out."
Jones said he believed that EPA's involvement had contributed to the outcome in that the agency had made it clear that it no longer accepted the "cooperative" approach to municipal polluters and that it strongly favored strict penalties.
Under the terms of the San Diego penalty, the city is to pay $200,000 within 30 days. It must pay another $300,000 within the same time period unless it agrees instead to pay $100,000 to an environmental protection group such as the Los Penasquitos Lagoon Foundation.
That foundation guards the Los Penasquitos Lagoon, the environmentally fragile body of water that has been the recipient of the millions of gallons of raw sewage that have spilled repeatedly from Pump Station 64, located in the Sorrento Valley.
If the city pays such a group, it need not pay the $300,000. The remaining $1 million of the penalty is to be imposed only if there is another spill or if the city misses any of the dates on its board-approved time schedule for expanding the plant.
City Manager John Lockwood called the board's vote on the fine "reasonable." He said the City Council will discuss its options--to appeal the penalty, "go to litigation," or pay--in a closed session Tuesday.
Lockwood also called the moratorium decision "very appropriate." He predicted no ban would go into effect because the plant expansion would be completed before its Nov. 15 deadline and sewage flows would not exceed capacity.
However, Alan Sakarias, who handles water issues for the Sierra Club of San Diego, said he felt the fine and the moratorium were inadequate and that his organization would ask the EPA for an independent investigation into the city's management of Pump Station 64.
The Friday morning hearing in downtown San Diego drew an overflow crowd of about 200, many of them developers, builders and construction industry representatives who urged the board not to impose a moratorium of any sort.
Environmentalists and people living near the plant asked for an immediate ban until the expansion can be completed. Under the board's plan, they said, thousands of homes could be built before a moratorium would be triggered.
"The simple fact is that neither this board or the city wants to pay the political price or endure the wrath of the business community for imposing a sewer ban," said Dennis Ainsworth, vice chairman of the Rancho Penasquitos Planning Board.
According to city figures, the plant's capacity is 41 mgd and its current dry-weather flows are 19 mgd. Since the city computes wet-weather flows at twice dry-weather flows, water board staff members estimate that current wet weather flows are 38 mgd.
In addition, city officials have predicted a 1.5 mgd increase in dry-weather flows before the plant's expansion is completed Nov. 15. The board staff concluded that such an increase would leave the plant operating at 100% of its capacity.
Under the moratorium plan, the city must report to the board staff weekly on how much sewage is flowing into the plant and how many hookups for new homes and businesses are expected to occur during that week.
When the total tops 20.5 mgd, new hookups are to stop.
Station 64, the third largest sewage-pumping station in the city, pumps sewage from northern San Diego, Del Mar and Poway to the Point Loma sewage treatment plant. The area it serves includes many of the fastest-growing communities in San Diego, including North City West, Scripps Ranch, Mira Mesa, Rancho Penasquitos, Fairbanks Ranch and University City.
Last spring, after a 4-million gallon spill from the plant, the water board for the first time threatened a sewer hookup moratorium for the area. To avert that, the City Council imposed its own ban, then lifted it, in part at the urging of the building industry.
On Thanksgiving Day, the station spilled again, triggering an 11-day moratorium by the city. When the city lifted the moratorium, blaming the spill on human error, the water board scheduled Friday's hearing to consider imposing its own.