Owes EPA $138,000 : Sewer District Settles 'Sludge Farm' Lawsuit

Times Staff Writer

Calabasas sewer operators came out smelling like a rose when federal officials decided to settle a $6-million dispute over sludge for $138,000.

The Environmental Protection Agency has withdrawn a demand that the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District repay half the cost of a $12-million federally financed "sludge farm" that the EPA had maintained was twice as big as it should be.

The settlement ends three years of wrangling between the EPA and the Las Virgenes district over the size of the 91-acre Las Virgenes Road disposal site four miles south of the Ventura Freeway.

The site was dubbed a sludge farm when it opened nine years ago because special plows are used to inject the gooey, chocolate milkshake-looking solid waste into the ground to be mixed with dirt. Sludge is left when common household sewage is treated and its water recycled.

But the EPA demanded a refund in 1986 when it learned that the farm was only handling half the amount of sludge that it was designed for.

The rebate request sent shivers through Las Virgenes officials because federal grant money used to build the farm was long gone--spent mostly to cover the price of 267 acres bought for the farm and a buffer zone from entertainer Bob Hope.

Less Sludge Than Expected

At the time, leaders of the Calabasas-based agency acknowledged that they could not explain why less sludge than expected was coming to the farm from their nearby Tapia Sewage Treatment Plant. There was speculation that many Las Virgenes homeowners may have had bricks in their toilets for a 1975 water-conservation effort when the farm was being designed.

"Maybe there were fewer people per household, or more people were using prepackaged food that led to less waste down garbage disposals," Edward McCombs, Las Virgenes' manager, said Thursday.

Because the Ventura consulting engineer who had done the sludge estimates in the mid-1970s was killed in a car crash and no one else knew how he had made his calculations, debate over the sludge shortage continued until late last year.

By then, McCombs said, residential construction between Calabasas and Thousand Oaks apparently led to a sludge surge that was almost taxing the farm to its capacity--which the EPA says is 15 tons of ground-injected sludge per acre.

The settlement was approved Monday by Las Virgenes directors and has been ratified by leaders of the sewage system's minority owner, the Ventura County-based Triunfo County Sanitation District.

EPA spokeswoman Lois Grunwald said Thursday that the settlement will be submitted within several days to regional EPA Administrator Daniel W. McGovern for final approval.

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