Something unusual is wafting from a controversy-plagued Calabasas sewage treatment plant these days.
The sweet smell of success.
Federal Environmental Protection Agency officials announced Tuesday that the Tapia Water Reclamation Plant has been named the best facility of its type in the United States.
The award is the second major honor for the plant in the past two months. On Aug. 30, the EPA named it Southern California’s top waste-water facility.
For the latest award, the Tapia plant was singled out from among 7,000 large sewage treatment plants in the country, beating out all other treatment facilities that recycle waste water and leftover sludge solids, EPA officials said.
The success is a dramatic turnaround for the plant, which is operated by the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District in conjunction with the Triunfo County Sanitation District in Ventura County.
It handles about 7 million gallons of sewage a day from about 20,000 homes and businesses in about a 120-square-mile area in western Los Angeles County and eastern Ventura County.
Since opening 23 years ago, it has often been condemned by environmentalists as being a growth-inducing nuisance for the Santa Monica Mountains.
Frequent expansion projects for the plant sparked new outcries and demands that it be closed. In the 1970s, one group demanded that it be closed and converted into a fish hatchery. By the early 1980s, critics complained that the plant was polluting Malibu Creek with poorly treated effluent that was causing illness among residents downstream in Malibu.
Its problems peaked in 1980 when a virus expert hired to help defuse the controversy embarrassed officials by accusing them of dumping hundreds of thousands of gallons of dangerous, germ-laden sewer water into the creek.
As that controversy swirled, a storm flooded the plant and washed away electrical and mechanical controls and ripped out sewage lines, sending 5 1/2 million gallons of raw sewage a day into the creek. Los Angeles County health officials closed 65 miles of beaches to swimmers for two weeks.
That prompted the state’s Regional Water Quality Control Board to take the unprecedented step of banning new sewer hookups between Calabasas and Westlake Village until Tapia workers could modernize their plant.
Some $55 million and four years later, the plant was enlarged. Workers moved their control rooms to higher ground, installed special sewage filters and built a reclaimed water pipeline to pump treated effluent to golf courses and greenbelts.
A sludge “farm” was constructed to convert the gray wastes into fertilizer so they would not have to be trucked to the Calabasas Landfill.
EPA officials cited those recycling efforts in announcing the award.
“The plant has not had any operating permit violations” in four years, said EPA spokeswoman Carrie Frieber. “It is close to reaching its goal of 100% reuse of waste water produced by the plant.”
Las Virgenes officials offer a 25% savings incentive to customers who use reclaimed water to irrigate lawns and greenbelts. They also offer a subsidy to developers willing to install dual water lines--second pipe systems that handle waste water--to greenbelt areas.
What little waste water is dumped into Malibu Creek is crystal clear, Frieber said.
“Proof of the quality of water is the fact that steelhead trout are returning to that stream for the first time since the 1960s,” she said.
The EPA award was presented to Tapia plant manager Bill Ruff at a Water Pollution Control Federation conference in Dallas. Each of the plant’s 26 technicians and other employees will receive personalized citations. The plant itself received a plaque and a large banner.
“The dedicated people who run these plants are the unsung heroes of the water pollution cleanup movement in the United States,” EPA Administrator Lee Thomas said.
“These are the people who, on a day-to-day basis, are quietly making this country’s rivers and streams fishable and swimmable again.”
Ruff said the national and regional awards have taken some of the sting out of the criticism and condemnation heaped upon Tapia a few years ago.
“The personal certificates will spark them up,” he said.