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Named S. California’s Cleanest : Troubled Sewage Plant Turns Tide

Times Staff Writer

A Calabasas sewage plant that has been battered in the past by floods, breakdowns and pollution-spewing leaks has been named Southern California’s cleanest waste water facility by federal officials.

The Tapia Water Reclamation Plant has received an “operations and maintenance excellence” award from the Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates sewage plants across the country. Four Northern California plants received similar awards, officials said Wednesday.

EPA officials praised the Calabasas plant’s water recycling program--which redistributes virtually all of its treated waste water to irrigate parks and greenbelts within the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District west of the San Fernando Valley.

As recently as four years ago, waste water produced by the Tapia plant was the source of controversy--and, by some accounts, dangerous contamination.

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Critics of the plant alleged that unfiltered waste water and raw sewage were flowing from it into Malibu Creek. They charged that rustic Malibu Canyon and the Malibu Colony movie star retreat were being polluted by the germ-laden effluent.

The often-enlarged, 23-year-old Tapia plant handles sewage from 20,000 homes and businesses in a 120-square-mile area between Woodland Hills and Thousand Oaks, including the cities of Agoura Hills and Westlake Village and several communities in eastern Ventura County.

Halt to Expansion Asked

The plant’s problems began in the 1970s as slow-growth advocates joined with environmentalists in demanding a halt to the plant’s expansion. One group recommended that the plant be closed and converted into a fish hatchery.

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The controversy peaked in 1980, when a virus expert hired to help defend the plant embarrassed district officials by publicly accusing the facility of dumping hundreds of thousands of gallons of inadequately treated sewage into Malibu Creek.

A short time later, a storm sent floodwaters over the creek’s banks, inundating the plant. The flood ripped sewage lines open and wiped out electrical and mechanical controls.

About 5.5 million gallons of raw sewage a day gushed into Malibu Creek, prompting health officials to close 65 miles of ocean beaches to swimmers for about two weeks.

After that, the state’s Regional Water Quality Control Board took the unprecedented step of slapping a moratorium on new sewer system hookups between Calabasas and Westlake Village. The result was a building ban that lasted six months while Tapia workers upgraded the plant.

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The renovations began an overhaul that cost $55 million and took four years to complete. Tapia’s operators used federal grants to finance the work, which included an enlargement of the plant and the installation of new waste water filters and a thick concrete flood wall.

In announcing the award, EPA officials praised the Tapia Plant’s treated effluent for providing enough water to reintroduce steelhead trout to Malibu Creek. “Theirs is a success story,” said Carrie Frieber, an EPA spokeswoman in San Francisco.

David Gildersleeve, a supervising engineer with the state’s Regional Water Quality Control Board, confirmed Wednesday that the plant has improved since the turbulent 1970s.

The federal award has given a lift to the 100 Las Virgenes district workers, who say they developed a wagon-circling mentality after their sewage plant came under repeated attack.

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Discouraging Times

“When everybody was accusing us in those days of polluting Malibu Creek with raw sewage, we were all very discouraged,” said district administrator Diane Eaton, who worked in those days as a secretary at the district’s headquarters.

“The plant was never rickety; it was just pushed to its limit,” said James Colbaugh, director of operations for the Las Virgenes district.

Colbaugh, who was hired to help run the Tapia facility in 1976, said it now handles 7 million gallons of sewage a day. It will be expanded next year to a 10-million-gallon capacity and may eventually be enlarged to handle 16 million gallons a day--projected as the Las Virgenes region’s ultimate sewage flow.

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