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Encina Sewer District Ceremoniously Cleans Up Its Act

Times Staff Writer

Directors of the Encina sewage plant in Carlsbad ceremoniously cranked shut a large valve Wednesday and began a new era of upgraded sewage treatment.

Earlier in the day, representatives of the six North County agencies that run the plant voted unanimously to improve the processing of effluent at the sprawling regional facility.

The decision by the Encina board makes the district the final sewage processor in North County to agree to upgrade treatment because of public concern about the effects of effluent dumped in the sea. The plant pumps more than 17 million gallons of treated sewage each day into the ocean 1 1/2 miles off Carlsbad State Beach.

“It’s very seldom that you get an opportunity to right a wrong in the environmental movement, but this is one of those opportunities,” said Richard MacManus, founder of People for a Clean Ocean, the watchdog group that sparked the campaign for tighter sewage treatment standards in San Diego County. “We applaud the board’s action.”

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With a lighthearted dash of pomp and ceremony, directors of the sewage district took turns twirling a large handle to shut down a massive valve and turn the flow of sewage toward the sophisticated tanks that provide secondary treatment.

Referred to Studies

In recent years, the plant had provided advanced-primary treatment, a process that blended secondary treated sewage with effluent that has been given only primary treatment, a less intensive process that removes fewer solids and bacteria.

MacManus and other environmentalists point to studies that suggest that the upgraded treatment greatly increases the chances of capturing viruses and bacteria that are released into the ocean under less stringent processes.

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According to some research, those germs can live in the ocean in a dormant state for weeks and then reactivate when ingested by sea life or humans.

Although five of the six agencies that pump sewage to the Encina plant favored upgraded treatment in a key vote more than a year ago, San Marcos water officials were able to dash the proposal. Like the other agencies, San Marcos enjoys veto power on all decisions affecting the plant.

At the time, San Marcos water officials said they were unconvinced that sewage given only advanced-primary treatment threatened the ocean.

Moreover, the group refused to go forward with more intensive treatment because it would increase the production of sludge, the sticky, foul-smelling byproduct of sewage treatment.

At the time, Encina was grappling with ways to dispose of the sewage byproduct because county officials had put limits on the amount of sludge it would allow at its Otay Mesa landfill. But, in recent months, a firm that markets soil supplement has been hauling the Encina sludge to Riverside County and Yuma, Ariz., for processing.

With the sludge disposal problem tackled at least for the short term, San Marcos water officials agreed this month to upgrade treatment at the plant, laying the groundwork for the vote by all six agencies on Wednesday.

“It’s great,” said Peggy Rutherford, a San Marcos water district director. “Do I look like a fish killer?”

The board’s decision to improve sewage treatment does come at a price. The extra sludge-hauling costs and other fees are expected to cost the district $500,000 more a year.

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In addition, a planned expansion of the plant, expected to go forward next year and be completed in about 1992, will cost about $20 million more than expected because of a need to provide more secondary treatment facilities, according to Rick Graff, manager of the facility.


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