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Judge Gives Sewage Plant a Breather in Permit Battle

Times Staff Writer

Facing fines of up to $25,000 daily, a southern Orange County sewage treatment plant operating without a permit won temporary immunity Wednesday from regulatory sanctions.

A Superior Court judge ordered the South Coast Air Quality Management District not to fine the Capistrano Beach Sanitary District, at least before Sept. 17.

The order allows the Capistrano district, which serves 10,000 residents and 30 businesses, “to continue to operate,” according to its attorney, Barton C. Gaut.

Last Friday, agents of the air district, the area’s premier watchdog agency for air pollution, cited the Victoria Boulevard plant for illegal operation and threatened the fines.

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“We had only two choices: continue to operate and be subjected to a $25,000-a-day penalty, or terminate our operations,” Gaut said. “We serve 10,000 people, and there’s nobody nearby, to my knowledge, who could have helped out.”

The Capistrano district argued that “a severe health threat” would occur, and that a shutdown could lead to groundwater contamination and the flow of untreated or inadequately treated sewage into the Pacific Ocean, threatening local beaches.

Capistrano officials also accused the air district of failing to act on the permit application for two years and nine months, before abruptly denying the request last month.

Wednesday’s order granting temporary immunity was signed by Orange County Superior Court Commissioner Eleanor M. Palk.

It was Palk, too, who last month signed, at the request of the air district, tough cleanup orders directing the sewage district to take immediate action to mitigate offensive odors it was generating because of malfunctioning equipment. That cleanup was completed July 10.

The air district had rejected the plant’s permit request on June 18, citing opinions of its engineers that continued operation of the plant “will cause a nuisance.” The acting senior engineering manager for the air district, Abdi Majidifan, declined comment.

In seeking temporary immunity from sanctions, Gaut said state law allows regulatory agencies just 180 days to act on permit applications, so because the AQMD failed to meet that deadline, its purported denial last month was unlawful.

The sewage district’s problems began when its digester, a 30-foot-high tank for processing sludge, began to malfunction.

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The air district said in court papers that the 300,000-gallon digester ceased functioning as long as five years ago. But sanitary district official Ray Maddocks has said that the digester it had to be emptied to be cleaned, resulting in waste sludge being spread over 20 acres of ground.

It was the odor generated by the waste sludge--which prompted Capistrano Beach residents to complain of headaches, worsening sinus conditions and nausea--that first triggered the air district’s involvement.


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